TERRA INCOGNITA: A dangerous precedent: The ‘Israel Hayom’ bill

These are scary times. Responsible politicians should not seek to regulate the press based on their personal dislike for what’s being printed.

November 2, 2014 22:17
Sheldon Adelson

Las Vegas gaming tycoon and Israel Hayom proprietor Sheldon Adelson. (photo credit: REUTERS)

A dangerous bill was voted on Sunday by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. Supported by members from Labor, Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beytenu, Hatnua and Bayit Yehudi, the bill seeks to ban free newspapers, some of which are among the four highest-circulation newspapers in Israel. It also seeks to regulate newspaper prices, saying that the lowest-priced newspaper of the four top-circulation papers cannot cost less than 70 percent of the cost of the second-lowest priced paper. And all this in the spirit of “supporting the newspaper industry.”

Laws that receive wide support from politicians are always suspect in a democracy. This one is tailored to stop one newspaper, Israel Hayom. The accusation is that the newspaper, owned by US businessman Sheldon Adelson, supports Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud. That gives other parties a good reason to put knives into its back – but it is precisely because one has the power as a politician to legislate against things one doesn’t like that one should stay one’s hand.

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Let’s consider some of the implications here. Supposedly a free newspaper is a danger to other newspapers, and if that free newspaper has a political slant that is unacceptable. Ignoring the fact that every newspaper has a political slant and an ownership with political interests, let’s look at the “free” issue.

On the web every newspaper struggles with a model that balances a paywall versus free content. Some websites relating to Israeli media, such as +972, offer all their content for free. Others, like Haaretz, have an extensive paywall.

As more media sites move toward paywalls, do we want politicians deciding that every online media site with a certain level of traffic must have a paywall? +972 is an interesting example here. It has received funding from the New Israel Fund and Heinrich Boll Foundation and is a non-profit with a radical-left slant. Is there a substantial difference between the agendas of +972 and Israel Hayom? Receiving massive cash injections from abroad to provide free content about Israel can influence the public conversation.

So should +972 have a special law crafted to make it harder to fund? Ironically, when the Knesset tried to craft a bill targeting left-wing NGO funding (which mostly comes from the EU), it was bashed as being anti-democratic. Then Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin said, “This doesn’t solve any problems. It makes them worse by forming a political committee in the Knesset to regulate opinions and ideas.”

“Free” isn’t the problem here. Is there any evidence people’s ideas can be influenced by wealthy people who support news organizations with a political slant? Has George Soros, who gives funding and support to various media organizations, such as Media Matters, really influenced public opinion? Even if Soros gave billions to try to make every American a Democrat, there is no evidence he could “buy” more than a few percentage points in elections.

Foxnews, which pioneered 24-hour media and has a more rightward slant, didn’t make people right wing in the US – they were already right wing and were thirsty for a channel that catered to their views.

CONSIDER THE lesson of the old Communist model of running media. In the Communist countries there were only party-affiliated newspapers (as there still are in places like Cuba). But no matter how much you feed people Pravda (which meant “truth”), they know it is a lie. The Communists spent 70 years brainwashing Russians, but it didn’t work. In Israel the model used was influenced by this socialist-style system. Each political party had its health insurance, its football team and its newspaper. That’s right. For all the politicians whining today about Israel Hayom, the only thing some of them miss is the “good old days” when every party had its own newspaper.

Remember Israel’s “good old days”? Hashomer Hatzair and Mapam had Al HaMishmar. The Histadrut and eventually Labor had Davar. Labor also had LaMerhav. Mapai’s Yiddish speakers had Die Woch. The General Zionists had HaBoker. Herut had its own newspaper.

Let’s be honest here. In the “good old days” the Labor and other socialist parties which dominated Israel for decades like a one-party state had the most party-affiliated newspapers, and worked hard to suppress newspapers that challenged their hegemony.

For instance Uri Avnery’s anti-establishment HaOlam Hazeh faced numerous calls in the 1950s for it to be shut down. There was close cooperation between the “establishment” papers through a Daily Editors Committee which sat with senior government officials.

The entanglement of government and the press was cemented early on. Israel’s socialists used their censorship powers to close newspapers that challenged them. Al-Ittihad, an Arab-language communist newspaper, was threatened with closure and actually closed for such sins as not supporting the government party line on the Korean war in 1953. Israel’s government closed it again in 1988 for its reporting of Land Day events.

Those were the bad old days. But Israel still lives under this shadow of socialist oppression of the press and populist view that the press should only print what the parties want them to. In 1987 when Arik Einstein sang “My little journalist” many journalists and politicians wanted it banned. Because they didn’t like it. That is the dark side of Israeli democracy, that has never gone away. It is the mentality that says “I don’t like it, let’s legislate it away.”

The politicians are drunk on the idea of legislating against things they don’t personally agree with. But if they can arbitrarily set the price of newspapers to “support” them, what’s to stop them from saying we must pay 100 NIS for a newspaper? Or that we must subscribe to “support” them? That’s what the Knesset did with books – they made it so books can’t be discounted, forcing the public to pay more.

There is no evidence government deciding how much things cost actually aids industries in the long run. People won’t buy newspapers they don’t want. Similarly there is no evidence the free newspaper has resulted in a decline of other print papers which were already declining for a decade. At the same time, you can give people as many newspapers as you want. The public is smart enough to distinguish quality from quantity. Rather than complaining about free newspapers, people should find a way to compete with Israel Hayom in the market of ideas.

Most readers are going online these days, and they want free content. Soon the Knesset might be telling us we have received too much free content online and all Hebrew websites must have paywalls to “support” Hebrew online media.

These are scary times. Responsible politicians should not seek to regulate the press based on their personal dislike for what’s being printed. The fact that across the political spectrum parties support this, and everyone judges how they feel about Israel Hayom based on how they vote, shows their narrow-mindedness, and that they don’t care about universal values. If Israel Hayom switched support to Labor, then suddenly Likud would be saying “no free newspapers” and Labor would be saying “free speech.”

Follow the author on Twitter @Sfrantzman

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