ACRI: Gov't cracking down on freedom of expression

Rights group report includes examples of blocked protests, bills in the pipeline, restrictions on the media.

December 12, 2010 13:52
International Human Rights Day in Tel Aviv.

Int'l human rights day Tel Aviv 311. (photo credit: Ben Hartman)


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It was more difficult, more dangerous and more expensive to hold demonstrations in Israel this past year, according to a chapter of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel’s “2010 State of Democracy Report,” relating to freedom of expression, which was released on Sunday.

According to the report, press freedoms were reined in and a list of bills threaten to make unpopular positions illegal.

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The report lists a series of steps taken by the government that have made it difficult for demonstrators to hold protests.

The report cites examples of the police forbidding demonstrations from taking place, as in the case of a planned students’ march in Bnei Brak, a right-wing march in Umm el-Fahm and a women’s march in the religious neighborhood of Mea She’arim.

“In the last two instances, it required the intervention of the Supreme Court to hold the protests,” read the report.

The report stated that legislation in the pipeline would bar protests outside of public officials’ homes, but the policy is already being enforced by police. It cites the decision to forbid settlers from protesting outside the homes of Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias, or the ban on right-wing protests outside the home of IDF Military Advocate-General Avichai Mandelblit’s house.

The report also criticized the practice of arresting protesters without cause, citing examples of both left- and right-wing demonstrators who were arrested and immediately released by court orders.

The report also pointed to the Tel Aviv Municipality’s decision to levy fees amounting to thousands of shekels to hold protests in Rabin Square as an example of restricting free speech and the right to protest. This policy is the subject of a petition to the High Court.

The report also stated that although a free press is a vital condition for a democratic state, press freedoms have been eroded in the past year. The reports cites the frequent use of publication bans to hide arrests, threatening behavior against journalists by the police and the IDF, and manipulation of press access to ensure favorable coverage, calling these symptoms of totalitarian and oppressive regimes.

Other examples of restricted freedoms of expression cited in the report included the calling in of political activists for “warning talks” by state agencies; forbidding the entrance to Israel of outspoken critics like Noam Chomsky and Máiread Corrigan- Maguire; attacks on human rights and social change organizations by politicians, and pressure put on those actors who refuse to perform in Ariel.

“While the problems surrounding the rights to protest have been around for several years, the delegitimization of groups and people who criticize government policies is a new and ever-growing phenomenon,” said Dan Yakir, ACRI’s legal counsel.

“Over the last year or two, there have been more and more manifestations of the conception that political opinions that deviate from the consensus, from the Left and the Right, are a danger, and that those who dare to criticize the state authorities pose a threat,” he continued.

“Freedom of expression is a basic human right and an essential element of democracy. Restricting it necessarily leads to the erosion of other human rights.”

When asked how ACRI responds to people who claim it should protest human rights violations by other countries instead of focusing solely on Israel, Yakir said that the group’s mandate restricted it to dealing with Israel and areas controlled by Israel.

“We may feel bad about and regret the human rights conditions in the Palestinian Authority or Syria or Iran, but it has nothing to do with us. In that sense we are very patriotic,” said Yakir. “I think we are doing a service for Israel by battling for a free and just state.”

Yakir said that in a way, ACRI was even helping Israel’s international advocacy efforts.

“The state authorities may fight us every step of the way when it comes to High Court petitions we file, but once they [succeed], they wave the decisions in front of the Europeans and Americans to show how liberal and open Israel is,” he said.

Yakir added that there was insufficient awareness about the severity of the threats to freedom of expression in Israel.

“Our report is first and foremost directed at Israel’s policymakers and Israeli citizens, but it is also addressed to Jewish communities abroad and others for whom Israel is dear. They all care deeply about the country and its character and we would like to enlist them all to the cause of a freer society,” he said.

“This section is only part of a wide-ranging report on the state of Israel’s democracy. We have already published a section about racist and non-democratic legislation efforts. These are all symptoms of erosion in Israeli democracy,” he said.

“We are here to warn of the things to come and call for a return to the basic values of citizenship so that Israel can continue to exist as a democracy.”

Prof. Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, an NGO watchdog, said that ACRI’s claims had to be considered in context of the group that issued them and criticized ACRI for “dealing in absolutes.”

“When ACRI and other groups like them talk about civil freedoms, they often do so without providing sufficient context and by appealing to absolute freedoms, which rarely exist in the real world. They offer no comparative standard, something that causes a great deal of distortion,” said Steinberg.

Steinberg went on to challenge ACRI’s ability to function as a fair and neutral arbitrator of Israel’s democratic character.

“Who granted them the authority to judge Israel’s level of democracy? Their own accountability is questionable,” he said.

“They are a self-appointed, foreign-funded organization and while that doesn’t disqualify them from voicing their claims, why should they be seen as better situated to decide on these issues than the Knesset or the Israeli court system? I think that when it comes to many of the issues, they have gone far beyond their mandate and taken up a political side.”

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