Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) attends a meeting of the Likud party in the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Very few people enjoy being criticized, but public figures usually display rather thick skins when journalists take them to task for their actions.
Here, in what we proudly refer to as the only democracy in the Middle East, the relationship between a free press and the government that it monitors in its role as the watch dog of democracy is increasingly threatened by the unusually thin skin of many politicians.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s astonishingly hostile response to a report last week by veteran and award-winning Channel 2 journalist Ilana Dayan has aroused the concern of all Israelis who value the freedom of the press, many of whom are journalists tasked with the responsibility of documenting the conduct of their government officials. A storm of protest greeted Netanyahu’s referring to Dayan as “one of the leaders of the orchestrated stigmatizing of the prime minister, which is meant to bring down the right-wing government and establish a left-wing government.”
It was a particularly chilling statement, because it echoed similar expressions by several of Netanyahu’s fellow Likudniks and curiously follows the international downgrading of Israel’s status as having a free press.
This happened months before Ilana Dayan criticized Sara Netanyahu’s exceptional role as the power behind the throne of a prime minister whose nickname is King Bibi. Indeed, Freedom House, the independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world, reduced its rating of Israel from Free to Partly Free in its 2016 report.
Freedom House noted its ongoing concern from the previous year for the “financial viability of private print and broadcast outlets... especially given the growing market share of the free paper Israel Hayom, the country’s leading print outlet. It is owned and subsidized by American businessman Sheldon Adelson and strongly supports Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
After the national election in March, Netanyahu decided to serve as communications minister himself, giving him control over the regulation of various segments of the market. That the limits of such power are now being threatened by his ongoing battle over the pending debut of the Israel Broadcasting Corporation is a cause for concern, but Israelis should not have to worry unduly about threats to curb our freedom of speech.
Israeli democracy thrives on the freedom of expression, because it is universally understood as a basic right, and as such is protected at least by precedent, if not yet anchored in a Basic Law. The Supreme Court has defended it as a basic freedom as well as being essential to human dignity. Time and again the court’s rulings have substantiated the principles established in our Declaration of Independence.
While our legal system protects media freedom, it does, however, restrict journalists from publishing just anything. Hate speech, for example, is prohibited, as is the incitement of violence, and the laws of libel protect individuals from being slandered. More important, the 1948 Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance bans expressions of support for terrorist organizations or groups that call for the destruction of Israel.
But our courts do not offer thin-skinned politicians immunity from criticism of their behavior by the media as news outlets fulfill their duty to inform the public.
The threat of legal action by politicians who feel abused by the media is always present, even if such action is ultimately seen as laughable. In 2015, for example, Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev sued the news department of Channel 10, seeking compensation after it aired a critical report about her. MK Oren Hazan similarly sued Amit Segal, Channel 2’s chief political commentator, for documenting his excesses prior to becoming a lawmaker. Education Minister Naftali Bennett even threatened to sue journalist Dror Feuer over a post on Twitter.
These are all chilling examples of how certain politicians are overly sensitive to criticism. As a phrase attributed to US president Harry Truman encourages, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.