protest libel 311.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Oh my, oh my, the impassioned (if minuscule) protests we’re seeing against the
new amendment to the 1965 libel law, which recently passed its first reading in
the Knesset! You’d think that the government was about to legalize strangling
budding Woodwards and Bernsteins.
MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) declared (I’m
assuming with a straight face, even if his head was screwed on backwards) that
“1984 is already here, and it’s awful.” Kadima leader Tzipi Livni called
it a “silencing law.” A Tuesday protest organized by (who else?) Peace Now and
Meretz which met (where else?) on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv chanted:
“Bibi, Bibi, you have gone too far. Israel is not Iran.” Later, at Tel Aviv’s
Cinematheque, journalists and wanna-bes got together to hear Meretz MK Nitzan
Horovitz breathlessly exclaim: “The attempts to raise the damages awarded in
libel suits to monstrous proportions is meant to strike fear into the media and
prevent it from investigating and reaching the truth.”
Without Borders, who usually deal with serious threats to journalists and
legitimate freedom of speech issues, have joined the fun. On their current
website, alongside an article about Rafiq Tagi of Azerbaijan, a Sanat journalist
and critic of Islam and the Iranian government, who died of multiple stab wounds
from an unidentified assailant as he was returning to his Baku home on foot on
the night of November 19, and the continued sexual attacks on women reporters in
Tahrir Square, they take time to express ”grave concern” over the proposed bill,
asking “that [it] is abandoned since it constitutes a real threat to freedom of
the press in Israel and could undermine democracy.”
Honestly, with all
the overblown rhetoric, I couldn’t actually understand what it was all about,
and so decided to simply read the law. It’s less than a page long and what I
understood is that it proposes to raise the amount of damages that the court may
award a victim of libel from NIS 50,000 to NIS 300,000. In the case of malicious
libel – the intent of which is to deliberately hurt the victim – these amounts
are doubled. These amounts are paid even if damages cannot be
Next, the law stipulates that publications must give victims of
libel the opportunity to publish in full a response to the allegations published
against them within a reasonable time period.
I rubbed my eyes and read
it again, looking for the totalitarian agenda, the horrible attack on our
precious democracy. In fact, I thought the law sounded not only reasonable but
necessary and just.
Let’s start with the amounts. You can’t use the
bathroom in any district court without paying your lawyers thousands of dollars.
Unless you are an oligarch, a lawyer, or a corrupt politician, there is no way a
normal person could begin to defend themselves against libel for such a pittance
as NIS 50,000.
As for the amount being disconnected from damages, go
prove how much the pain in your heart is worth when your child or grandchild is
taunted in school that their parent is a “crook.” Go prove the worth of damages
in the way your friends look at you and how they speak about you in private
after reading their weekend dose of poison.
Moreover, far from heralding
the end of democracy, asserting the legal right of those slandered to defend
themselves within a reasonable period of time in the same media that defamed
them seems to me to be where democracy begins, not ends.
As for the
burden of proof falling on the defamer, not the defamed, this is vital. If
someone calls you an ax murderer, he should have to prove it, because your very
effort to defend yourself only lends credence to the idea. Who can forget
Richard Nixon proclaiming: “I am not a crook.”
And so why the frenzy of
protests? “It will kill investigative journalism.” Really? Or will it simply
kill poorly researched articles based on hearsay and innuendo from unnamed
sources, who modern journalists puff out their chests and declare must be
defended, whether or not they’ve lied, purposefully misled, or simply had an ax
Besides, that’s already the law. The only thing the new law changes is
how expensive it will be to publish the usual shoddy, defamatory piece of
fish-wrap that goes for journalism today. Maybe, since shocking headlines make
money, then greater potential losses from publishing false ones that destroy
lives might make editors and their staffs work a little harder to ensure
Let’s be honest here. Israeli journalists, like their
counterparts all over the world, are not for the most part careful crusaders and
meticulous fact-checkers. Too many have developed an easy, reciprocal
relationship with crooked lawyers, politicians and PR firms in which they write
up whatever secret poison is being spilled into their ears in exchange for the
opportunity to publish scandalous tidbits that make sensational headlines. How
many times have we read about Sara Netanyahu’s maids? How many times have we
seen headlines proclaiming the arrest or imminent arrest of public figures that
As for the real stories, like that of a former president who
turned out to be a rapist, it doesn’t seem to me that a few extra shekels would
have stopped anyone from digging deeper into that morass. Anyhow, as it went to
trial, we got court evidence, not unverified, libelous disinformation from the
president’s defenders or his critics.
This law won’t completely stop
gossip from parading as news. But it might give the public a fighting chance not
to become victims and also to enjoy more reliable and less biased information.
There is only one side to be on in this particular fight, and that’s with our
prime minister. The law has passed its first reading. I wish it Godspeed in the
near future to become the law of our ever more democratic land.