Freedom of the press

Too many who should know better are quick to curtail freedom of the press out of narrow political considerations.

A VENDOR sells newspapers in South Africa.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A VENDOR sells newspapers in South Africa.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What is being referred to as the “Israel Hayom Bill” is bad, undemocratic legislation. That so many lawmakers on both the Left and the Right support it reveals an embarrassing lack of understanding of, and commitment to, a basic human right – freedom of the press.
If this bill becomes law – which is unlikely, though it could destabilize the coalition – it would force Israel Hayom, presently distributed for free, to charge money.
The bill dictates somewhat complicatedly that of the four largest daily newspapers in the country, the lowest priced cannot charge less than 70 percent of what the second-lowest priced does. It was drafted to hurt Israel Hayom.
The dangers of the measure are self-evident to those who understand and appreciate freedom of the press.
The goal of the bill is to reduce Israel Hayom’s readership.
While it is true that it would not shut down Israel Hayom completely, the reasoning behind the initiative is dangerous and undemocratic.
Lawmakers who support it, such as Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, argue that the newspaper should be hobbled because, as she put it during an appearance on Channel 2’s Meet the Press, “Israel Hayom is not a newspaper, it is election propaganda funded by someone very problematic with a worldview that goes against Israel’s interests.”
There is a lot to unpack in Livni’s one-sentence accusation. First, she claims that Israel Hayom is propaganda.
She means it is openly supportive of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This is true and apparent to anyone who has read the paper. Direct criticism of Netanyahu is all but absent. Front-page stories are designed to advance policies supported by the prime minister.
Those who support the Israel Hayom Bill intend to discredit the paper by calling it propaganda. But who will judge when news coverage crosses the line and becomes propaganda? The last ones who should be allowed to make this call are politicians in competition with Netanyahu who have a direct interest in limiting his influence via Israel Hayom.
And Livni and others, such as Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who hyperbolically compared Israel Hayom to Pravda a few months ago, should give readers more credit for having the capacity to think for themselves.
After all, freedom of speech is not just about protecting the right of the speaker or the newspaper to make its point. It is about the right of the audience or readership to hear a broad range of opinions. Actually, it is Bennett’s approach that is Pravda-like, because it seeks to censor.
Other dailies, such as Haaretz and Yediot Aharonot, have clear political leanings. Economic interests can govern editorial decisions. But if this bill becomes law, only Israel Hayom will be punished for a non-crime, and on the baseless charge that it alone is a mouthpiece for a specific political agenda.
Another point Livni and other detractors of Israel Hayom make is that the paper is owned by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson. But no attempts have been made to pass legislation to discredit Haaretz because a large shareholder is German publisher M.
DuMont Schauberg, even though this publishing house had a questionable relationship with the Nazi regime during the Second World War.
Nearly every media outlet in the world today is backed by one or more sugar daddies. Inevitably, there will be conflicts between the interests of ownership and the editorial staff’s desire for freedom of expression.
But the best remedy is not to single out a particular newspaper for censure. Rather it is to encourage the creation of as many media outlets as possible so as to get a diverse spectrum of news coverage. The news consumer should be trusted to sort it out for himself.
Too many who should know better are quick to curtail freedom of the press out of narrow political considerations. This reveals a lack of appreciation for democratic principles, and a lack of faith in the public’s ability to think for itself.