The Knesset’s many former journalists bash libel bill

Coalition, opposition MKs who reported for TV, radio and print say new measure would undermine freedom of press.

By
November 21, 2011 22:57
Knesset vote [file]

Knesset vote 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

The many former journalists now serving as members of Knesset almost unanimously panned the libel bill that was brought to its first reading on Monday.

Six MKs from the opposition and the coalition told The Jerusalem Post that if the initiative to sharply increase the penalty for libel – even when damage is not proven – passes in its second and third readings, it would prevent the press from performing its democratic role.

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MKs Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) and Yariv Levin (Likud) proposed two similar libel bills that were combined ahead of the Knesset vote, saying that the legislation would increase accuracy and responsibility among journalists, and encourage them to equally represent both sides of a story.

“This is an important step in protecting democracy,” Levin said after the bill passed. “The Knesset expressed its support for defending freedom of expression over the freedom to humiliate, and declared its preference of accuracy over getting a scoop.”

The text of the original bill proposed by Sheetrit explains that the 1965 libel law “proved itself and was very efficient in libel suits.”

“Since the phenomenon of damage [caused by the media] has expanded, the standard of punishment must be raised, in order to prevent people from publishing slander or libel and protect the respect of those mentioned in the media,” the bill reads.

However, most MKs that used to work in the press disagreed with Sheetrit and Levin.

“As someone who has worked in the media for over 40 years, I adamantly oppose a bill that limits the press and harms its ability to perform its important role in democracy,” said Kadima MK Nachman Shai, who worked as a television reporter in the 1970s, was IDF spokesman during the Persian Gulf War and later served as the chairman of the Israel Broadcast Authority.

Shai pointed out that even posts on social networks can become subject to major libel suits according to the new bill, and said that this is proof of the current government’s irresponsibility and disregard for democracy.

“Personally, I feel that if there is a reason that I came to the Knesset, it’s for this important moment – to protect the media,” he stated.

MK Nino Abesadze (Kadima), who reported on Georgia’s national television channel and, following her aliya in 1996, on Russian-language programs in Israel, said the libel bill “is a part of a chain of laws meant to weaken Israeli democracy.”

“This is a warning sign for the Israeli media,” she added.

“There is no need for this bill.

The current bill already responds to the plight of those harmed by mistaken media reports.”

According to Abesadze, this law could “mark the end of investigative journalism and fatally wound the press’s ability to be the watchdog of democracy.”

Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, also a former television journalist, slammed the bill from the plenum’s stage on Monday night, calling it a “lethal weapon in the hands of the wealthy and of strong conglomerates that want a reign of terror and cut off all good, investigative journalism.”

“This law will not help any regular people who were disrespected,” Yacimovich stated.

“It will be a powerful tool in the hands of those with money. As it is, today much of the media are enslaved to the interests of the wealthy, and journalists censor themselves, because they know very well, in advance, who they’re not allowed to touch.”

The Labor leader quipped: “Tomorrow, we’ll wake up in a wonderful world, where we’ll only watch Big Brother and read about flowers and butterflies in the newspaper, and we’ll have a beautiful country.”

MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), a former Ha’aretz reporter, said that the bill is part of “an attempt to weaken democracy and an attempt to silence and block criticism and free thought and all of its sources – the media, the courts, academia, NGOs.”

“You can already see a ‘chilling effect’ on the media,” Horowitz explained. “Even if there isn’t a bill, there is an atmosphere in which people are afraid to cover important topics. They don’t want to get in trouble.”

Coalition members also spoke out against the bill. MK Uri Orbach (Habayit Hayehudi), a well-known writer who hosted a popular Army Radio program, referred to the “chilling effect” mentioned by Horowitz, saying that, should the law pass, it will go even further as to have a “freezing effect.”

“Journalists will be afraid to write, even if it’s the truth,” he explained. “This will bring a wave of pointless libel lawsuits.”

Orbach said that journalists should be punished for libel, which he called “a newspaper’s industrial accident caused by negligence,” but that NIS 300,000-1.5 million would cripple medium-to-small newspapers.

He brought right-wing Hebrew-language paper Makor Rishon and the Post as examples of papers that could face serious damage should the law pass.

“Peace Now will sue Makor Rishon once, and that’ll be the end of them. The law just isn’t proportionate. Double the penalty, make it NIS 100,000, but 300,000 is too much,” Orbach said.

The Habayit Hayehudi faction chairman said that, although as a coalition member he is supposed to vote in favor of the bill, he cannot do so with a clear conscience.

Orbach was present during the plenum reading on Monday night, but did not vote.

A Likud MK with a background in media also slammed Elkin and Sheetrit’s bill, calling it disproportionate and will not allow the press to function. The MK said there were heated arguments in Sunday’s faction meeting about the enforcement of coalition discipline for the bill, because many of the Likud members are against the measure – not just vocal opponents such as Minister without Portfolio Bennie Begin and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin.

However, that same MK voted in favor of the bill, citing “the rules of the game.”

MK Anastasia Michaeli (Israel Beiteinu), who hosted television programs on the Russianlanguage “Israel Plus” television channel before becoming an MK, refused to comment on the libel bill. Michaeli, along with MKs Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi) and Yisrael Hasson (Kadima) signed the bill when it was originally proposed, and she voted in its favor on Monday night.


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