When I wrote this essay for a USC journalism class in October, there was no obvious sign that tensions between Israel and Palestine would soon flare up in the Gaza Strip once again. But then in mid-November Palestinians began lobbing rockets over the border. A decades-old conflict over territory and homeland picked up where it had last left off. Israel responded with air raids, and casualties resulted on both sides. U.S. media pounced on the story, filling front pages, radio reports, and TV shows. No doubt coverage in Israel and the Middle East was just as robust. But was it free of government influence and other constraints? Israel treats press freedom differently from the U.S., as my paper aims to explain. Times of war are especially sensitive. Israel and Palestine may have agreed on a cease-fire, but Israel’s political situation is still unstable. Israeli citizens — and the world — will need an active press to keep us informed about what is happening, and what we might expect next.
In the United States, we often take freedom of the press for granted as an inalienable right. It’s enshrined in our Constitution, after all. But it is important to recognize that other modern democracies, even those with values similar to ours, treat press freedom differently.
Consider Israel, for example — a democratic nation the size of New Jersey in a volatile region dominated by monarchies, theocracies, and dictatorships.
Just as the U.S. grew out of revolution, Israel was also born in tumultuous times. Its gestation took decades, beginning with Jewish settlement in the late 1800s and ending in 1948 — amid the aftermath of World War II. Israel needed to build a new society in an ancient land nearly from the ground-up — and with violent opposition from neighboring countries.
Thus, Israel’s dedication to tough security. And regulation of the media. Until the early 1970s, as Israel fought several wars, the government regularly censored the print press. It was not until 1986 that the government allowed private radio and television stations.
Today, the 64-year-old country enjoys extensive freedom of expression, as the 2011 U.S. Department of State’s report on human rights attests. (Hate speech, incitement to violence, and expression of support for illegal or terrorist organizations are prohibited, however.) Although this support is not explicitly expressed in the Israeli Constitution, or any law, it is considered an element of the right to human dignity and liberty, one of Israel’s Basic Laws.
Still, Israel claims that it must take special security precautions due to the country’s political instability and vulnerability to attack. Some of that extends to the media.
Are limits on press freedom acceptable if the goal is security and peace?
This question is not unique to Israel. The U.S. confronted the same issue when newspapers wanted to publish The Pentagon Papers, a move the White House resisted. Ultimately U.S. courts approved their publication, saying the information did not endanger the country’s security.
In other countries, such as Cuba and China, the government runs the media to curb dissent and maintain political stability. And in many places, such as Middle Eastern countries, governments curtail journalists’ rights to block criticism and uprisings. Comparatively, the Israeli press enjoys vast freedom.
Still, it is interesting to consider a few examples of Israel’s careful attitude toward the press, especially in comparison to U.S. policies. They imply deeper issues that will continue to be relevant as Israel develops its laws, nurtures its national identity, and attempts to establish peace at its borders and in contested territories.
All journalists working in Israel — Israeli, Arab, and foreign — must be accredited by the Government Press Office (GPO) in order to attend official press conferences, access government buildings, and pass through military checkpoints. This indicates the government’s aim to ensure that only serious, professional journalists — not the guy-next-door blogger or an anti-Israel activist — can access certain information. The system has been criticized for denying accreditation to various Palestinian journalists and others deemed critical of Israel. Still, the system does not seem to be widely contested, and foreign organizations comply.
In the U.S. we have no official licensing system for journalists, although various organizations distribute “press passes” to offer exclusive access. While mainstream media typically receive the best access, anyone can approach a government representative seeking official information with the intent to publish it. Still, writers without prestigious backing often lack the access they need to do thorough investigations. This could change as informal blogs attract mass attention and rack up prestige points. The same is sure to occur in Israel too, where rates of computer use are high. As technology evolves, Israel should ensure that its accreditation criteria allows diverse media forms as well as viewpoints.
Unlike the U.S., Israel employs official censors. Media organizations operating in Israel must submit for approval material about military or infrastructure issues, such as oil and water supply. The censor can penalize or halt a publication if national security is potentially at risk. In a 2006 interview with the Associated Press, chief military censor Col. Sima Vaknin explained the possibilities:
“I can, for example, publish an order that no material can be published. I can close a newspaper or shut down a station. I can do almost anything.”
The media largely abides by Israel’s rules. According to the Associated Press, it must if it wants accreditation and access. The organization has written:
“Reporters are expected to censor themselves and not report any of the forbidden material…When in doubt, they can submit a story to the censor who will hand it back, possibly with deletions…If a reporter violates the rules, he or she suffers the consequences.”
Several journalists have been arrested for violating censorship laws in recent years. In one case, two Palestinian journalists reported on the deployment of Israeli soldiers to Gaza without approval from censorship authorities. They were arrested, although the supreme court eventually overturned their two-month sentence.
In another case, a journalist was charged with “serious espionage” for leaking military documents to another reporter. Both were indicted, sparking outrage. The Washington Post reported several of the critical responses. One former Israeli Supreme Court judge said it would have a “chilling effect” on journalists, who often discover important news leaks. A law professor and head of the Israel Democracy Institute said Israeli military was “under the least oversight by the government and parliament,” and thus merited journalistic scrutiny. As well, military correspondents warned that the indictments “could turn every journalist into a potential criminal, or silence the media, make the defense establishment opaque and immune to criticism, effectively harming democracy.”
American journalism professor Justin D. Martin pointed to censorship as evidence that Israel does not have a free press. He wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review,
“Imagine if journalists in the United States were forced to hand over their work to the Marines for their blessing, and then ask yourself if the American press, bound by such shackles, could be considered free.”
The U.S. does not enforce a censor on news publication of any kind. However, political journalists regularly correspond with top-level officials, as pointed out in Top Secret, a play about the Pentagon Papers, and consider national safety with care. It seems this informal system works well enough that the U.S. has never considered imposing an official censor. Not to mention that censorship would strike at the heart of America’s dedication to a “fourth estate” as a balance to government power.
In Israel, censorship has been especially scrutinized in the occupied territories. The organization Reporters Without Borders claims that, in dozens of instances, Israeli forces have blocked access to Arab reporters. (A scenario depicted in the cartoon above.) In one recent example, an Arabic radio station in the West Bank was accused of “inciting hatred towards Israel” and forced to close. The station countered that, in actuality, it encouraged peaceful dialogue among Israelis and Palestinians.
Which version to believe? Here in the U.S., it is difficult to grasp the context of daily life in Israel and its territories. It is unclear which side might be right. This only proves further the need for a disinterested press.
Israel has recently proposed a so-called “anti-libel” bill that journalists fear could stifle freedom of expression. It would increase the maximum amount of compensation owed to plaintiffs by six times the current limit (to 300,000 shekls, roughly $77,369). As well, it would declare plaintiffs free from the obligation to prove harm suffered, putting them at an advantage over publications. Finally, it would require offenders to pay an extra 1.5 million shekls (approximately $386,847) if they do not publish a full reaction – as lengthy as desired – from the plaintiff.
Israeli journalists from a variety of media vehemently opposed the bill. Reporters Without Borders said in a statement,
“The severity of the financial penalties determined by this bill are clearly aimed not only at strangling Israel’s media financially but also at intimidating journalists who might dare to expose corruption and criticize the government.”
The Jerusalem Post published a well-reasoned editorial similarly protesting the bill. The article pointed out:
The bill comes at a “particularly inopportune time as the Israeli press grapples with economic woes resulting in part from the ongoing transition from print to Internet and falling advertising revenues along with a rise in the influence of various business interests over editorial decision-making.”
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has apparently supported the bill by saying:
“Power corrupts, and the press has power.”
According to The Jerusalem Post, Israeli courts have long struggled to balance American law, which promotes “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open freedom of speech,” with English law, which favors protection of privacy and reputation. In Israel Electric Corporation vs. Haaretz from 1977, Israeli courts teetered between the two sensibilities. Haaretz, a prominent daily paper, had been sued by Israel Electric Corporation for criticizing its director. The Supreme Court first ruled in favor of Haaretz, citing the famed 1964 New York Times vs. Sullivan case which established “actual malice” as a condition of libel. “The decision stressed that the democratic nature of Israel required a freer press as a check on those who held power,” explained the Jerusalem Post. But when the Israel Electric Corporation appealed, the courts reversed their decision, this time leaning on English examples and noting that libelous writings fueled Nazism.
In a comparative study of The Law of Defamation in Israel, Todd Harris Fries has noted that Israeli and American attitudes toward defamation differ largely because of “historical perspective.” He wrote:
Israel’s frame of reference in regard to the harm caused by defamation stems directly from the atrocities committed against the Jewish people in World War Two. As a result, the Israeli government allows its citizens greater protection from harms against one’s honor and dignity than allowed by the United States.
Which approach — American or English — will Israel favor for its new “anti-libel” bill? The bill passed several hurdles late last year, but has not yet been legalized. The press will surely continue to fight it, citing the American example. But the history of Israel and its people must be considered as well.
Press Freedom for the Future
Israel is at little risk for transforming into a press-domineering monster, discarding rights for the nobler goal of “peace.” Jewish culture with its tradition of Torah and Talmud study emphasizes dialogue, discussion, and certainly argument and disagreement. Freedom of expression and press is fundamental to Israel’s identity as a haven for all Jews seeking liberty. But it is important to recognize that limitations to press freedom can exist even in the best-meaning societies. Countries vulnerable to violence are particularly at risk. We cannot be too careful in ensuring that Israel continues to preserve the press freedom that embodies the country’s democratic ideals. Still, press freedom is not necessarily “one size fits all.” There may be valid reasons for Israel’s press freedom to look different from our own in the United States.