The prohibition on election propaganda 60 days before an election is impossible to enforce in the current age and should be abolished, retired Supreme Court president Dorit Beinish recommended in a report of a task force she headed that was delivered to President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday.
Beinish’s committee, charged with proposing reforms for the Knesset elections, has met 24 times since July 2015.
There was a consensus on the committee that the existing legislation is anachronistic and incompatible with changing times and current norms.
Both Rivlin and Beinish commented that the law has remained almost unchanged for close to half a century and is in dire need of revision.
There were slight amendments in 1969 following the introduction of television to Israeli households, and again in 1990 with the advent of commercial television. In 1998 the rules for propaganda broadcasts for local elections were formulated.
Beinish said it was also important that each party, including small and new parties, receive equal time on television and radio.
The committee’s recommendation was to give four minutes on the 14th day and the 7th day prior to the elections for each party, and that the time allotted be divided into two-minute slots. The chairman of the Central Elections Committee will conduct a lottery each time to determine the order of the party line-up for election broadcasts.
However the chairman will not be required to vet every broadcast in advance, and with the exception of extreme cases, there will be no censorship of content.
It is understood that the bulk of election publicity will be disseminated via the Internet, said Beinish. But here, too, there has to be adherence to the law, and racism and incitement to violence will not be tolerated.
Violations will be subject to a steep fine.
On the other hand, general violations of the Elections Law will no longer be treated as criminal offenses.
The existing law prohibits the use of sailing vessels, airplanes, loudspeakers, special lighting effects and the carrying of torches for election broadcasts. The committee determined that all of the above are irrelevant to the message, and that this clause should therefore be struck out.
In what appears to be a contradiction to the provision for fairness, the committee recommends that each party be permitted to purchase airtime for election commercials, and that there be a special sign to differentiate between bona fide commercials and those designed to capture the attention of the potential voter. But since small parties may not have enough money to pay for commercials, they would be at a disadvantage.
This did not come up for discussion between Rivlin and members of the committee.
Party polls which are broadcast several times a day in the short period leading up to the elections must be as accurate as possible, said Beinish, and must be submitted to the chairman of the Central Elections Committee 24 hours before they are published.
The initiative for appointing a committee to examine the law – from legal, practical and academic perspectives in order to amend it to present day realities – came from retired Supreme Court justice Salim Joubran, who prior to his retirement was chairman of the Central Elections Committee. It was also at Joubran’s suggestion that Rivlin, a former Knesset Speaker, was asked to appoint the committee. It is comprised of judges, lawyers, academics, former government ministers and former Knesset members who also headed Knesset committees.
Beinish emphasized that the recommendations were based on equality, greater fairness and transparency while taking into account freedom of speech. She asked Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to give the recommendations his serious consideration and to throw his weight behind them when presenting them to the Knesset.
Edelstein said that everyone understands that the existing law is not conducive to changing times, and underscored the importance of “safeguarding the common denominator in Israeli society.” He conceded that a lot of people say that there is no common denominator, especially since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, but he believes that it does exist and that it must be preserved.
While he welcomed the recommendations, he could already imagine some of the violent opposition that would come from certain factions in the Knesset. “We can already see the land mines that have to be crossed,” he said. However, he agreed that reform is badly needed, and once approved will strengthen Israeli democracy and Israeli society.
Deputy Supreme Court President Hanan Melcer, who is currently chairman of the Central Elections Committee, recalled that 20 years ago, when he was not yet a judge, he was the legal counsel for Channel 2, which was constantly challenged during the pre-election period by political events that had to be kept out of the news and had to find creative ways of reporting them, without overstepping the legal boundaries.
In today’s climate he said, it was more vital than ever to ensure that incitement and racism are kept out of political propaganda.
Speaking from personal experience, Rivlin knew that Edelstein would have a tough time persuading his parliamentary colleagues to accept the recommendations. There had already been two failed attempts to establish a Knesset code of ethics, he said.