Political Thuggery vs. Free Speech in Israel

Over the past two months, the Knesset has been considering the “Bill for the Promotion and Protection of the Printed Media in Israel.” The proposed law, introduced by Labor Party fixer-in-chief Eitan Cabel, states, “No person shall publish, or be responsible for the distribution of, a widely circulated daily newspaper free of charge (to the consumer), for a period exceeding six months from the start of its free-of-charge distribution.” Anyone who believes in Israel’s aspirations to freedom of speech and thought should be angered by the arrogance of such a proposal.

Cabel is no newcomer to abusing the government’s media regulatory apparatus for political gain. As a former minister running the Israel Broadcast Authority, he demanded taxpayer funds to keep the quasi-commercial Channel 10 out of bankruptcy. Of course, it didn’t hurt Cabel that Channel 10’s content generally communicated a leftist, Labor-Party-friendly bias.

No law can “protect printed media.” Print is a technology which, in a free society, is easily accessible. In authentic Orwellian doublespeak, this bit of tyranny “protects” the interests of a narrow, elitist interest by falsely labeling the law an exercise in universal morality. The elite is personified by Yedioth Ahronoth owner Arnon “Noni” Mozes, whose family numbers among the dozen or so wealthiest, most connected and influential in the country. Before Israel Hayom broke onto the scene seven years ago, Yedioth Ahronoth dominated newspaper circulation. Today, Israel Hayom has either matched Yedioth Ahronoth or taken the lead in circulation. This law would thus criminalize Israel Hayom’s business model of cost-free distribution to the reader and advertising-only-based revenue.

The bill was co-sponsored by eight additional Knesset members: Yoel Razbozov (Yesh Atid), Robert Ilatov (Likud Beytenu), Elazar Stern (Hatnu’ah), Ariel Attias (Shas), and Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi), Ilan Gilon (Meretz), Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas), and Yithak Cohen (Shas). These disgraceful individuals are not fit to serve as the “public’s representatives” in Israel’s legislature; members of their respective parties should be the first to condemn them. Perhaps sensing a growing outrage within their party constituencies, Vaknin and Cohen have since withdrawn their support for the measure.

These MKs, from parties on both the right and the left, share a political antagonism towards Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has been constantly attacked by Yedioth Ahronoth and the other major, leftist, oligarch-owned newspapers. Israel Hayom, has arguably been the only nationally circulated newspaper that has presented positive coverage of Netanyahu, even in a balanced context.

Currently, it appears that the Bill for the Promotion and Protection of the Printed Media in Israel will not pass in the Knesset. It was heartening to read of a demonstration in Haifa opposing the bill, organized surprisingly by the Labor party and by pensioners. These are positive developments. It is troubling, however, that several MKs from both the left and the right have supported the bill. In effect, they are supporting the partisan suppression of political speech on the part of a newspaper. In the eyes of these MKs, has this become an acceptable norm for the purposes of political gain? If this type of political warfare is introduced on the part of the political opposition, does the tactic not become fair game for those in power? Do these MKs not believe that the principle of free speech is to be protected as an article of Israel’s national identity as a democracy?

Unfortunately, government over-reach in controlling speech and business is still problematic in Israel, as evidenced by the passage last summer of the Law for the protection of authors and literature in Israel. That law regulates agreements between publishers and authors as well as sale of new books in Israeli bookstores. Authors may not negotiate a royalty rate lower than 8% and bookstores may not sell books at a discount for the first 18 months of a book’s sale, regardless of whether authors are willing to make such concessions for the sake of getting their books into print. The greatest beneficiaries of that law are Steimatzky, Israel’s largest chain of bookstores, and older, established authors. New authors will find it relatively difficult, as a result of the new law, to get signed by publishers. If the experience of other countries which passed similar laws is any indication, the number of book titles published per year will drop. Customers will pay more if they want to read newer books, which many will probably forego. Entrepreneurs with innovative strateigies, trying to provide value at lower prices, will find the bookselling sector more difficult to enter. Is it any wonder the law is known as “the Steimatzky Law?”

Israelis cannot expect their government to restrain itself until the citizens themselves demand this en-masse. That means a widespread cultural movement to promote freedom and responsibility. It means teaching Israelis that government is not the ultimate provider of material sustenance, but a necessary apparatus that must focus solely on providing vital governing services and nothing more. When government tries to manage the economy it fails, especially when it tries to stave off the complementary cycles of ecnomic growth and recession. In a free market, these cycles both drive healthy competition, which lead to innovation and true productivity. When they try to “protect” an industry, the end result is almost always to weaken that industry by making it less competitive and less productive.

Too many Israelis still expect and rely upon government handouts, but do not grasp how the system providing those handouts handicaps their potential to prosper. The more social benefits become legal “rights,” the larger the government bureaucracy created to guarantee those “rights.” Government grows and siphons wealth out of the marketplace just to sustain that bureaucracy. It is a decaying cycle that eventually reduces national productivity while increasing citizen dependency on government for even the most basic needs. Add to that the inevitable corruption feeding upon the power of unlimited taxation and money-printing, and the problem is even worse.

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are basic rights that must be guaranteed, not restricted, by government. They constitute a red line to be defended if Israel is to be a country that is free and prosperous. Another message must also be made clear. No industry or individual has a right to manipulate the legal system in order to guarantee itself an advantage or an income, especially at the cost of another’s freedom.

The author is a member of the Israel Freedom Movement. http://liberal.co.il/

About the Author
Michael Jaffe was raised on Long Island and moved to Israel in 1987. He holds a MS in electrical engineering and a PhD in mass communication research. He's worked as a technical marketing consultant and lectured on topics of communication and systems of government.