It's Orwell's 1984 and Israel is the new Iran

Could the proposed Sheetrit-Levin libel law turn Israel into an Iran-esque autocracy?

Livni Mofaz Knesset 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Livni Mofaz Knesset 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Israel is in turmoil for a change. Apparently this time, it is the “catastrophic” libel law which puts the Jewish State in jeopardy. Media petitions, fiery speeches, indignant interviews, and stormy debates at the Knesset have led us to this tenuous position. Their message? The evil government is trampling our civil liberties, destroying the freedom of the press and turning Israel into a dark dictatorship.
The culprit is the Sheetrit-Levin bill, which proposes a fine of up to 300,000 shekels for those found guilty of publishing libelous material by a court of law. According to popular media opinion, the bill marks the dawn of a darker era in Israel’s democratic history. 
However, many of these media pundits seem to have conveniently ignored the fact that the proposal is not actually a new one, rather it is simply an amendment to the fine of the existing law. As it stands right now, the law states that publishers of libelous material can be fined for up to 50,000 shekels. The Sheetrit-Levin bill hopes to increase that sum by an additional 250,000 shekels. Yet still, the bill’s opponents are angrily accusing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government of silencing the press at all costs.
Astonishingly, those who decried the bill did not even take the time to compare it with similar libel laws in other western democracies. Perhaps because if they had, they would have discovered that in addition to a hefty fine, the punishment for libel, defamation or calumny in countries such as Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, Austria, and Italy also includes a prison term. Imagine then, how the media would have reacted if someone in Netanyahu’s government had suggested sending a reporter to prison for libel!
The reaction towards the proposed law in the media and the body politic was a mixture of hypocrisy and exaggeration. On TV, angry newscasters compared the bill to the new, draconian law passed in South Africa for the punishment of “publication of State secrets” by a jail term of 25 years. In the Knesset, Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni and her party rival, MK Shaul Mofaz, both heavily condemned Netanyahu, yet both seemed to conveniently forget that the author of the bill was not Netanyahu but one of their own, Kadima MK Meir Sheetrit.
Mofaz made a bombastic speech in which he announced that the grim reality of George Orwell’s 1984 is already unfolding in the Jewish State. The speech raised questions as to whether Mofaz had actually read the book or understood its meaning, and at one point a Soviet-born Knesset member even jokingly reminded Mofaz that the latter could not possibly have any idea what life was like in the Soviet-inspired Orwellian world.
On the other hand, even before the bill passed its first reading, there were a handful of major figures in the media who stood up to both their stampeding colleagues and their Knesset allies. One famous columnist claimed that this eventuality came about as a result of our own folly. Radio host Judy Shalom Nir-Mozes and TV anchorwoman Ayala Hasson also spoke out, describing their personal accounts of “crucifixion” when they themselves had been victims of libelous publications.
Hasson hit the nail on the head by saying that the best solution to the libel phenomenon should be the strengthening of ethics rules and regulations in the media. Indeed, in the past, when conscientious editors thoroughly checked their reporters’ stories and their subjects, no libel laws were needed. Today, the opposite is true for most of our newspapers; many reporters exaggerate - and even outright lie - just to obtain a sensational headline.
A prime example of this was when former International Monetary Fund director Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his wife, Anne Sinclair, spent a weekend in a friend’s house in Israel. Some trigger-happy reporters announced that Strauss-Kahn was about to replace Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, while others described in full detail how Strauss-Kahn and his wife went house-shopping in Tel Aviv. Eventually the couple had no choice but to issue a statement, specifying that they had no intention whatsoever to make aliyah.
Today, we enjoy a full freedom of the press—one that we will defend wholeheartedly—but our media’s inexhaustible hunt for sensation has made itself a rival worthy of the Italian paparazzi. It is their—and our—tendency towards exaggeration and sensationalism that plays into the hands of our enemies, both within and without.
Only last week, I was listening to a program on the BBC about female Israeli singers, dubbed as “the voices we’ll never again hear from Israel.” The broadcasters patiently explained to their listeners that due to religious oppression, women’s singing will imminently be banned in Israel. Some of the Israeli women that were interviewed declared that Israel is becoming “like Iran.” Needless to say, this proclamation was like music (pun intended) to the BBC broadcasters’ ears.
So why the need to exaggerate? The ban on female vocalists by zealots in the religious community is already grave enough, and indeed, one which we should use all our resources to combat, but comparing Israel to Iran? Or 1984? Not yet and not ever.
As for the libel bill, by its final reading, the 300,000 shekel fine will probably be reduced by at least half and will only be remembered as yet another case of much ado about nothing. And perhaps for now, the best lesson that editors and reporters can learn from this whole sorry episode should be to just write the truth, and nothing but the truth.
The writer is a former Labor Party MK and the official biographer of David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres.