Knesset passes 1st readings of libel, judicial bills

Controversial bills would increase penalty in libel suit where damage not proven, regulate representatives to judicial c'tee.

Knesset vote 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Knesset vote 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A controversial amendment to the libel law cleared another hurdle late Monday night, after passing 42 to 31 in its first reading.
The bill, proposed by MKs Yariv Levin (Likud) and Meir Sheetrit (Kadima), would raise the penalty for libel without proof of damages from NIS 50,000 to NIS 300,000, should it pass in its second and third readings. If damage were proven, the penalty would be up to NIS 600,000, and the amount could jump to NIS 1.5 million if the media outlet refused to publish the harmed party’s reaction.
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MKs Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi), Anastasia Michaeli (Israel Beiteinu) and Yisrael Hasson (Kadima) also signed the bill.
The initiative will be brought to the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee for further discussion and preparation for its second and third Knesset readings. It is expected to undergo changes there.
The proposed legislation faced criticism from both the coalition and the opposition, with Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin voting against it after nearly three hours of plenum discussion. Likud ministers who most vocally opposed the measure – Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor and Minister without Portfolio Bennie Begin – were absent from the bill’s reading, as were nine other Likud MKs.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu voted in favor of the bill, following comments from earlier in the day that if he thought a bill would undermine democracy “even a little bit,” he would shelve it immediately.
“No one will tell anyone what to think, what to write, what to investigate, what to broadcast. This is not the way of the Likud. This is not my way,” he said at a faction meeting.
United Torah Judaism announced that it would support the bill in its first reading, due to “coalition commitments,” but demanded that changes be made before its second and third readings.
However, none of the haredi factions’s members were present during Monday’s vote – a tactic that, some sources said, may have stemmed from the colorful descriptions that are common in haredi newspapers, some of which are aligned with the parties that make up UTJ.
Habayit Hayehudi MK Uri Orbach was present, but did not vote, and his party’s leader, Science and Technology Minister Daniel Herschkowitz, was absent from the first reading.
The few opposition members to vote in favor of the libel bill were National Union MKs and Sheetrit – the only Kadima MK permitted to break party discipline, because he had proposed the amendment.
However, 10 Kadima MKs were absent from the vote, including faction chairwoman Dalia Itzik, who has spoken out in favor of the measure in the past, and Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich and Otniel Schneller, who were punished in July for voting against party lines.
Sheetrit presented the bill to the Knesset on Monday evening, saying that “a journalist must report the truth and cannot report things that are not true.”
“He must be careful, especially when dealing with a person’s reputation,” he explained.
Both Sheetrit and Levin said before the vote that they would be willing to discuss possible changes to their initiative in the Knesset, and Orlev said he would vote against the bill in its later readings if it were not significantly altered.
Some of the changes that may be discussed include lowering the suggested penalty while keeping it higher than NIS 50,000, as well as making the amendment apply only to news sources and not to individuals on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.