The Knesset has given first reading and initial approval of an amendment to Israel’s libel law proposed by MKs Yariv Levin (Likud) and Meir Sheetrit (Kadima). The amendment would significantly raise libel penalties and make them easier to achieve, especially if media publishes defamatory material on individuals without offering them the opportunity to respond fully and in real time. As a result, the angry media has labeled this a “silencing” bill and an “attack on democracy.”
Not at all. In fact, the amendment doesn’t go far enough.
The dry technicalities of the amendment involve the setting of new maximum penalties for defamation without proof of concrete damage to the aggrieved party (the maximum fine would increase from 70,000 shekels to 300,000 shekels, and double that if damages are proven). If media refuse to publish a full response of the aggrieved party, the maximum fine could rise to 1.5 million shekels.
Of course, no law can determine in advance what penalties a court of law might actually impose on a libelous violator. Generally, the courts are not quick to rule that media truly committed libel against anyone, nor do they rush to impose maximum penalties. Consequently, all the hyperbole about “silencing” and the crushing of free speech is exaggerated.
But the proposed amendment does seek to create a chilling effect – chilling the enthusiasm of media to gaily and liberally splash into print every juicy, outlandish and nasty bit of information they can possibly get their hands on, without proper fact-checking or allowing the accused robust opportunity to respond. This is not a bad thing.
Did you know that, according to Jewish law, it is forbidden to speak or publish negative information about people – even if it’s true! (The basic exception to this rule, narrowly applied, allows for dissemination of unflattering true information when its knowledge will have specific and concrete benefit or will prevent damage to others). “Who is the man that desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile” (Psalms 34:13-14).
Yet Israel is one of the loosest journalistic environments in the Western world. Journalist education is weak; the standard of professionalism for journalists is poor; the self-awareness of editors in terms of their responsibilities (both nationally and personally) and their legal obligations (such as avoiding libel) is low; sensationalist stories and gossip journalism get a lot of ink space and air time; tabloid-style “exposés” are highly-sought-after and competition is fierce.
Journalists back away from solid, stodgy, in-depth reporting, opting instead for cheap, hot (and often loosely-substantiated) reporting. Tantalizing and scintillating stories sell better than balanced and complex stories, unfortunately. So again: The libel law amendment is needed. It could motivate journalists to be a little more careful.
It can be convincingly argued that the type of corrections needed for responsible journalism in Israel today might better be achieved by a self-regulated media code of ethics, not by law legislated in the Knesset that smacks of media suppression. I would buy into this argument if I saw any indications of media self-restraint, but I don’t.
Take for example the issue of ethnic labeling. Under the Israel Media Council’s own code of ethics, it is forbidden to run headlines such as “Ethiopian Murdered,” “Russian Raped,” “Haredi Stole,” or “Settler Stoned” because these blanket stereotypes amount to group defamation. They constitute classic “Lashon hara” (evil speech). But you see such headlines all the time, code of ethics notwithstanding.
Fourteen years ago, my late father Professor Zvi Weinberg (MK, Yisrael BeAliyah) of blessed memory (we just marked the fifth anniversary of his passing) proposed an amendment to Israeli libel law that would outlaw such ethnic labeling. He was very upset about the derogatory treatment of Russians and Ethiopians by the press. He was sensitive to the pride of these important immigrant populations, and the insults hurled at them infuriated him. But media lobbyists managed to have his amendment buried after its preliminary reading. “We (the media) can police ourselves in this matter,” they argued.
Perhaps Sheetrit, sponsor of the current libel law amendment, might consider adding ‘ethnic labeling’ to the definitions of outlawed speech. Sheetrit was one of the people who bowed to media pressure and opposed my father’s amendment more than a decade ago. Now he has a chance to correct his errors and add a layer of much needed protection for minorities in Israel.
At the same time, I think that a number of adjustments are required so that the amendment to the law cannot be too liberally applied. Firstly, the amendment should distinguish between public figures (who deserve less protection from the media) and people that are not public figures – who need special protection against the salacious inclinations of the media. Secondly, not every tin-pot prosecutor should be able to slap journalists with a libel indictment. The amendment should restrict this privilege to senior district attorneys.
The writer is director of public affairs at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and blogs at www.davidmweinberg.com.