Dozens of concerned journalists gathered at Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque Sunday to
protest what they perceive to be an ominously widespread antagonism against the
media. Some of the issues discussed included the government’s declining
willingness to come to the aid of the financially-strapped Channel 10, the
abrupt shutdown of the joint Palestinian- Israeli Kol Hashalom radio station,
policy changes at IBA News – including the firing of Keren Neubach from the
investigative news program “Mabat Sheni” and attempts to interfere with radio
presenter Yaron Dekel’s “Hakol Diburim.”
But an “anti-libel” bill,
approved in the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee last month and
brought for a first reading in the Knesset Monday night aroused the most rancor.
And rightly so. If passed in second and third readings by the Knesset, the
legislation, a collaborative initiative of MK Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) and
coalition MK Yariv Levin (Likud) would seriously intimidate journalists, editors
The present limit on compensation for libelous reports
would be increased six-fold to NIS 300,000. As is the case at present, the
plaintiff would not be required to prove that he or she was damaged in order to
collect compensation. And media outlets would be required to pay NIS 1.5 million
in compensation to citizens whose full reaction – apparently no matter how long
that reaction is – was not published as part of the report that was deemed
The bill comes at a particularly inopportune time as the
Israeli press grapples with economic woes resulting in part from the ongoing
transition from print to Internet and falling advertising revenues along with a
rise in the influence of various business interests over editorial
But even in the best of circumstances, amending the 1965
Defamation (Prohibition) Law – strongly influenced by restrictive British law –
to further curtail press freedom is a bad idea.
For decades, our courts
have struggled to balance American law, which, tends to tolerate a greater
degree of press freedom with English law, which tends to prioritize protection
of the reputation and privacy of individuals, organizations and
corporations as noted by Attorney Todd Harris Fries in an article entitled The Law of Defamation in Israel: A Comparative Study.
For instance, in Haaretz vs. Israel Electric Corporation in
1977, the daily was sued in the Supreme Court by the director of the IEC for
publishing an article condemning the company’s director for allowing the IEC to
buy him an expensive luxury company car during a recession. The director said
that he would sell the car. But having failed to do so, the paper commented that
“in fact, the Electric Corporation is not interested in selling the car,”
implying that the director was being deceitful. The Supreme Court ruled in favor
The Supreme Court, basing itself on New York Times vs.
Sullivan, a landmark decision issued in 1964 by a US court, accepted Haaretz’s
plea of good faith, even though the defaming opinion included injurious, false
statements of fact.
The decision stressed that the democratic nature of
Israel required a freer press as a check on those who held power, particularly
public figures responsible for tax payers’ money.
However, IEC appealed
for a further hearing. And the decision was overturned in IEC’s favor. This
time, the court cited the English approach. Allowing criticism of public
officials “would tend to deter sensitive and honorable men from seeking public
positions of trust and responsibility and leave them open to others who have no
respect for their reputation.”
The court argued further that
over-protection of speech may endanger democracy. In particular, the court noted
that the rise of Nazism was facilitated by the propagation of defamatory
falsehoods about the Weimar Republic.
Haaretz vs. Israel Electric
Corporation demonstrates nicely how our courts struggle to balance an
America style championing of uninhibited, robust, and wide-open freedom of speech
with an English conservatism that understands the need to protect the privacy
and reputation of all individuals, including public figures.
It would be
extremely unwise to upset this delicate balance by introducing legislation that
would severely intimidate an already embattled news media.