Rights groups slam proposed increase to libel penalties

Penalties could reach over NIS 1 million, would require media to publish full responses by injured parties; Horowitz calls bill "draconian."

October 10, 2011 15:46
3 minute read.
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Following a heated debate on Monday, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approved by a vote of 5 to 2 the first reading of a controversial new bill proposing dramatic increases in compensation penalties for libel.

MK Yariv Levin (Likud) had proposed raising the penalty for libel without proof of loss from NIS 50,000 to NIS 300,000, and MK Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) proposed a higher penalty of NIS 500,000.

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If a plaintiff proves that the libelous remarks were made deliberately to harm him, then the court could award up to NIS 600,000 in compensation.

The bill also requires that offending media outlets publish a victim’s response in full. In cases where the victim is not given adequate opportunity to respond, the court may award damages of up to NIS 1.5 million without proof of loss.

Yariv said the current libel law was ineffective and said the bill was intended to end, as he dubbed it, the “intolerable situation of ‘freedom of slander’ underneath the freedom of expression.”

Sheetrit also said the aim of the proposed increase in libel penalties was to protect citizens who have “no chance against the mighty power of the media.” The press, he argued, has an important role – to report news. However, it should only report the truth, he said.

“Nobody – and that includes journalists and the media – has the right to ruin a person’s reputation,” Sheetrit added.

Committee members MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) and Hana Sweid (Hadash) both completely opposed the bill.

Gal-On said the proposed libel penalties would have a “chilling effect” on journalists, whereas Sweid slammed the bill as “McCarthyist,” and argued that it would “allow those with deep pockets to harm citizens.”

MK Uri Orbach (Habayit Hayehudi) said the increase in libel penalties would tempt people to file lawsuits, resulting in a situation in which reporters were afraid to write.

Among those present at Monday’s committee debate were several MKs and representatives from the media, rights groups and academia, who added their voices in opposition to the proposals, arguing that increased libel penalties would only serve to silence the press and the wider public.

MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), a former journalist, slammed the proposed amendment as “draconian.”

“Its primary measure is to silence the press and prevent it from exposing corruption and from checking the actions of the wealthy and powerful,” Horowitz said.

Horowitz commented that the press already held back from carrying out investigative reporting because of what he dubbed “unbearable pressure from huge companies, tycoons and politicians.”

“Instead of allowing the media to act in the public interest, and allowing every wronged citizen to speak out, anti-democratic MKs are working to silence the media and prevent it from filling its role in a democratic society,” Horowitz added.

Attorney Mibi Mozer, representing Yediot Aharonot and Haaretz, also opposed the bill.

“The bill will leave us with just 120 people who can say what they want, because they have full immunity,” Mozer said, referring to Knesset members. “But reporters won’t have freedom of expression.”

Mozer further noted that in many libel lawsuits, it is not always clear until the final moments of a trial what the truth actually was.

Libel suit expert Dr. Tamar Gidron of the College of Management, said there was nothing wrong with existing libel legislation and therefore the bill was not needed.

Attorney Avner Pinchuk, of the Right to Privacy Project at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said the bill to amend the law was based on the false premise that libel victims were not receiving adequate compensation.

“In actual fact, the situation is the opposite,” said Pinchuk. “The levels of compensation awarded by the courts has increased in recent years.” Pinchuk added that the proposed amendments to the law would encourage baseless libel suits.

“The wealthy will be able to sue or threaten libel suits to intimidate journalists, bloggers, employees or anyone who criticizes them,” said Pinchuk.

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