Media comment: Freely a free press

Free newspapers are a fixture in our societies.

A VENDOR sells newspapers in South Africa.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A VENDOR sells newspapers in South Africa.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since 1791, the democratic world has viewed the press as nearly sacrosanct, guided by the United States Constitution’s First Amendment that “Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of...the press.” Eleven years earlier, the reasoning for this amendment was made clear by John Adams and others in Massachusetts when they wrote that, “The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom in a state: it ought not, therefore, to be restrained.”
On the other hand, there are probably many sympathetic to the character in Tom Stoppard’s play Night and Day, who supports a free press but says that “it’s the newspapers I can’t stand.”
Here in Israel, in 2014, we are witnessing one of the strangest parliamentary attacks on press freedom in the democratic world. A legislative initiative, titled in the best Orwellian fashion as “The Law for the Furtherance and Protection of the Press,” is making its way through the Knesset chambers.
The bill, proposed by MK Eitan Cabel (Labor) together with other MKs from coalition parties Yisrael Beytenu, Bayit Yehudi, Hatnua and Yesh Atid as well as the opposition faction of Shas, seeks to “strengthen written journalism in Israel and ensure equal and fair conditions of competition between newspapers.” The goal is to be achieved on the basis of the Cabel Principle of Journalism which is that “Free newspapers hurt journalism as well as pluralism and democracy in Israel.”
The bill seeks to obligate the state to prevent the publication of a daily newspaper for free if it has a wide readership. Such a paper is defined as one that appears six days a week and possesses at least 30 pages (100 on weekends and holidays). Another test is that it must be one of the four top distributed newspapers. The proposal also has a supposed economic rationale, which the sponsors claim will protect fair competition in the market of printed journalism.
The bill obviously and blatantly targets one newspaper, Israel Hayom. It is a “personal law” directed against a specific entity rather than a general one. If passed, the actual result would be destroying competition, recreating the virtual monopoly of a rival newspaper and, as Professor Asa Kasher phrased it, an “unlawful attempt to inflict forfeiture of rights and/or property without judicial process.” In short, the legislation is quite undemocratic.
MK Cabel has a history of waging parliamentary wars against media outlets that do not share his political views, which are far left-of-center. His bias was obvious. On the one hand he succeeded in shutting down the Arutz 7 radio station’s broadcasting. On the other, he helped save the left-wing-dominated Channel 10 television station from being forced to fold due to its mismanagement, wastage of funds and lack of quality programming, not once but many times.
The internal contradiction of the present law is further compounded by the fact that it will mainly benefit Yediot Aharonot. This newspaper empire achieved its dominant role when, in the 1960s, it engaged in massive free distribution in order to successfully challenge its then leading competitor, the powerful Ma’ariv newspaper.
Why would parliamentarians act to recreate a media monopoly and why would right-wing MKs assist an anti-right-wing conglomerate to reestablish its rule over public opinion? What could be said in these politicians’ favor is that they are somewhat more imaginative than Tommy Morris. In early 2013, Morris, aide to Irish politician Derek Keating, sought to prevent the distribution of the free Lucan Gazette. His solution was straightforward and, unfortunately for him, caught on camera. He was observed entering a shop, picking up a pile of copies and dumping them in a garbage can and then repeating the maneuver.
Free newspapers are a fixture in our societies.
Checking the Wikipedia entry, we found almost 100 free newspapers being distributed and it is estimated that in Europe about one out of five newspapers read by the public is distributed free of charge.
So why are these politicians involved in such a law, when even former Haaretz editor Hanoch Mamari listed in The Seventh Eye 10 reasons not to vote for the law? The only possible reason is that despite the high-sounding words, this is just about low politics. It is no secret that Israel Hayom is strongly sympathetic to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The paper’s owner, Sheldon Adelson, is one of his outspoken backers.
It is also well known that parties such as Yisrael Beytenu and Bayit Yehudi present a very serious electoral challenge to Netanyahu.
Shas is also not applauding Netanyahu’s politics.
Israel Hayom, especially during the most recent election campaign, took meaningful steps to discredit all of these political parties.
Consider for example Naftali Bennett.
Already in December 2012, Israel Hayom’s political correspondent Matti Tuchfeld was pointing a finger at a developing relationship between Minister Bennett and Yediot, angering his supporters, who responded on Internet forum discussions at Aviv Horwitz, Mako’s media critic, writing in August 2013, detailed, and not for the first time, what he considered “favoritism” being displayed by Yediot towards Bennett.
He noted a Friday headline from May 31, 2013, accompanied by a picture of Bennett going off to spend time with army buddies – not a very political story – and then later that week, a story about Bennett celebrating Rabbi David Stav’s selection as the party’s candidate for the position of chief rabbi spread over several pages.
He continued with a list of items, noting headlines, captions, column inches, relatively insignificant actions, such as shooting-range results, items on minor party personalities in places like Beit Shemesh and more.
The sad conclusion is that the proposed law has little to do with lofty ideals such as freedom of the press, but everything to do with petty, small-minded and short-sighted thinking on the part of right-wing politicians. They have a fantastic record of destroying rightwing causes and furthering those of the Left.
This bill, if passed, will be another in a string of these “successes.”
Indeed, Likud Minister Gilad Erdan, who decided in the end to remain in Israel rather than accepting a diplomatic appointment abroad, can chalk up another such success – the decision of the Broadcasting Authority to air the Jews are Coming TV series, considered by its creators to be a satirical program.
Our impression, according to its promotional material, is that its “humor” is nothing but a very base and primitive portrayal of Jewish history and values, that debases the Jewish tradition. Queen Esther, they prefer, should be seen as a harlot.
If the law proceeds, will free websites be next? Is free distribution as a marketing strategy to become a crime? Why are the politicians pushing this law willing to become laughing stocks when the Supreme Court, as it presumably will, disqualifies the legislation? Do the politicians know something the public does not? Perhaps our Supreme Court judges, too, will act according to political motives and for the sake of headlines in Yediot Aharonot?
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (