Journalists come out against ‘muzzling’ libel bill

TV and newspaper personalities crowded into the Tel Aviv Cinematheque to protest against a proposed amendment to the libel law.

Photojournalists photographers journalists reporters 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Photojournalists photographers journalists reporters 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Veteran journalists and relative newcomers to the profession were among members of the media who crowded into the Tel Aviv Cinematheque on Sunday to protest against the proposed amendment to the libel law.
The bill proposed by MKs Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) and Yariv Levin (Likud) would raise the court-imposed penalty for publishing libelous material – without proof of loss – from NIS 50,000 to NIS 300,000, as a deterrent to what the legislation’s sponsors see as an increase in the incidence of libel.
Speakers were almost unanimous in saying that if the law is thus amended, investigative reporting would become financially onerous and reporters would become afraid to expose corruption and other flaws in the system.
The emergency meeting, which was the brainchild of Army Radio broadcaster Razi Barkai, coincided with the shutting down of the Voice of Peace radio station (for not having a license) and the threatened closure of Channel 10 (for financial reasons).
“The meeting was long overdue,” Barkai said. “It should have been held when attempts were made to shut down Educational Television, to introduce mass dismissals at the Israel Broadcasting Authority, to silence Army Radio and to initially pull the plug on Channel 10.”
“The new legislation, if enacted, will prevent the truth from being reported,” journalist Hagai Segal said.
“But this latest development in muzzling the media would not be beneficial to anyone,” he said. “Even journalists who have been labeled as left-wing or who are openly left-wing agreed that insufficient coverage had been given to right-wing issues. That said, this did not justify limiting one of the basic tenets of democracy, which is a free press.”
Ilana Dayan, from Keshet and Channel 2, said, “Everyone here knows the fear of wanting to report something but being afraid to do so because of what might happen afterwards.” Dayan said she knew what it was to face a lawsuit for reporting what one believes to be the truth.
“Journalists don’t represent democracy in terms of being the elected representatives of the people,” she said. “But they do represent democracy when defending the public’s right to know.”
Dayan was among the speakers who said the media had sometimes been unsympathetic to settlers, and who suggested that the proposed amendment to the libel law was a red light warning.
“The media is in an unprecedented perilous position,” said Avi Weiss, the head of the Channel 2 News Corporation.
“The attempt to silence us is designed to make us afraid.”
While determined to fight the current bill, Channel 1’s Ayala Hasson sounded the most upbeat note when she said, “The media is strong.
Look how many people are here. No other event in Israel could have attracted such a huge media turnout.”
Politicians were not the only ones cast in the role of rogues.
Speakers also blamed tycoons who had vested interest in keeping the media under control.
MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) proposed on Sunday an amendment to the libel law in which the burden of proof would be on the person claiming damages, and not on the journalist.
“The attempts to raise the damages awarded in libel suits to monstrous proportions is meant to strike fear in the media and prevent it from investigating and reaching the truth. Therefore, an additional element that exists in many countries must be added to the law: If you sue for libel for a massive amount, then the burden of proof is on you.”
Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.