Media Comment: Shameful legislation

Restricting Israel Hayom would be a blow to Israel’s freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

A woman is seen through a coffee shop window as she reads an article about Ben Zygier in an Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper in Jerusalem, February 15, 2013. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A woman is seen through a coffee shop window as she reads an article about Ben Zygier in an Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper in Jerusalem, February 15, 2013.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
MK Eitan Cabel (Labor) was once the minister responsible for the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), at which time he introduced an amendment to the IBA law which among other things attempted to assure that politicians would have no say in the IBA. When it was finally adopted, however, it gave the ruling government the ability to appoint the IBA’s public board. Cabel lamented the change and warned against any such intervention.
MK Cabel was right: His legislation, if passed in its final form, would have assured that the left-wing liberal elite was in control the IBA, independent of which government is elected. The board would have been appointed by a retired Supreme Court judge and his cronies.
Nowadays, however, Cabel is bothered by the fact that Israel’s print media is no longer controlled by the left-wing Yediot Aharonot-Haaretz axis.
Israel Hayom is currently Israel’s most widely read daily newspaper. Its editorial policies are conservative and quite supportive of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (Likud). Even worse, as we noted last week in this column, the owner of Israel Hayom, Sheldon Adelson, has also purchased the Makor Rishon newspaper after the belated ratification of the deal by Israel’s antitrust commissioner. With strong financial backing, in the near future Makor Rishon may well overtake Haaretz, whose market share is only six percent.
True to form, Cabel, who was also one of the leaders in the successful shutting down of the Arutz 7 radio station, is now trying to use his legislative powers to destroy Israel Hayom. Under the Orwellian title “Legislation for furthering and defending the written media in Israel,” Cabel has tabled a law which would force Israel Hayom to cease existing as a free newspaper.
Cabel’s legislation is a model of originality. Its stated purpose is “to further equal opportunity and assure true and fair competition among newspapers.” The law would forbid free distribution of a paper “which is published six days a week, contains at least 30 pages on weekdays and 100 pages on weekends and prior to festivals.”
The paper would have to be sold at a price which is at least 70% of the price demanded by the daily with the lowest price on the market.
The use of legislation to curtail the operation of a newspaper is not new. In 2001, MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud), at the time president of Israel’s Media Watch, submitted a law entitled “Prevention of monopolies and cartels in the media.” Complementary legislation was submitted at the same time by MK Tamar Gozansky (Hadash) restricting cross-ownership in the media.
Both laws ended up in the legislative junk pile by default. The government changed in 2002 and the legislation was discontinued. At that time, the attempt was made to use the law to limit the influence of Yediot Aharonot, which was then the most popular newspaper.
Its syndicate published many local newspapers, as well as the most-read Russian newspaper, Vesti. It had a stranglehold on the advertisers as well as the distributors.
The emergence of Israel Hayom revolutionized Israel’s written media. The paper had the means to entice some of Israel’s leading journalists to “defect” from Yediot and Ma’ariv. It advertised its wares aggressively, providing whoever requested it with a free subscription delivered daily to the doorstep. Only lately was this policy changed and nowadays a monthly subscription is no longer free, but costs a fraction of the price requested by any other newspaper in Israel.
The Israel Democracy Institute’s Seventh Eye Internet media review journal claims that part of the paper’s aggressiveness was in pulling the plug on the price of advertisements. This created a situation, it claims, whereby the competition could no longer operate profitably.
The fact is that the Ma’ariv and Makor Rishon may have closed had they not been rescued.
The proponents of the law claim that Adelson’s financial backing has skewed Israel’s written media market to the point that none of the other papers can operate. It is for these reasons that MK Cabel is running to the rescue of Israel’s press.
Cabel’s shenanigans are not surprising. What is surprising is that so many level-headed MKs have been taken in by him. Some of the other signatories of his law are MKs Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu), Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi), Elazar Stern (Hatnua), Ariel Atias (Shas), Ilan Gillon (Meretz) and Yoel Rezbozov (Yesh Atid). The legislation has wall-to-wall representation among the Zionist parties except, naturally, the Likud.
It is clear that the legislation has no chance of passing as long as Binyamin Netanyahu is prime minister. He will not allow any legislation which would curtail his strongest supporter in Israel. But politics aside, the law is a sham.
Adelson is by far not the largest funder of media organs in Israel. That would be the State of Israel, which spends close to a billion shekels a year on the public media. The IBA as well as the Galatz army radio station are allowed to advertise. It is not a secret that they sell their airtime at prices which are well below what would otherwise be the norm. Their policies have harmed Israel’s private broadcasters. But Cabel and company have not initiated legislature to ban advertising from the public media. Banning such advertisement would cost the public in the form of higher taxes. But the same politicians are willing to hit the taxpayers’ pockets by preventing them from receiving a free newspaper.
The most damning evidence against Cabel’s legislation is the fact that the entrance of Israel Hayom to the media market has if anything significantly increased the number of people reading a daily or weekly newspaper in Israel. As reported by TGI, the average readership levels for all daily and weekend papers in 2006, before the emergence of Israel Hayom, were 68.7% and 85.9% respectively. In 2013 the numbers are 98.8% and 106.6% percent respectively. In contrast to the Western world, where newspaper readership is shrinking, in Israel it has grown immensely. Such growth is a boon to democracy, to the advertising market and most importantly to the journalists themselves who find their work appreciated by an ever increasing fraction of the population.
Israel’s Media Watch sent a letter this week to all the signatories of Cabel’s legislation asking them to rethink their position. The real source of competition to the paper media is the Internet, not the freebies. Restricting Israel Hayom would be a blow to Israel’s freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
Two and a quarter centuries after its adoption, the US Constitution’s First Amendment, that “Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech or of the press,” appears to carry very little weight among too many of our lawmakers.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (