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Is the Curtain Falling on Free Press in Israel?

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Press conference in the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, July 26 2011. Photo Times of Israel/ Mark Israel Sellem/Flash90.

Israel has always proudly described itself as the sole democracy in the Middle East. Could the atmosphere of the country be changing? A strong pillar of a healthy democracy is freedom of the press. Is the Israeli government clamping down on the press, both international and domestic? The foreign press has faced growing criticism by officials that it is biased against Israel. The Foreign Ministry has even mocked the foreign media in a cartoonish video claiming that they are unprofessional. Members of the foreign media have been summoned to a Knesset hearing on the foreign press and put on the defense to explain an apparently skewed reality.

Uri Dromi, founder and director of the Jerusalem Press Center (JPC), explained in a phone interview with Fanack on 23 February 2016 that he has been hearing more complaints. The Jerusalem Press Center is a “safe haven” for the foreign press corps in Jerusalem. Because the JPC is not an official government agency, the international correspondents feel comfortable attending JPC briefings, using the facilities for media services, lounging in the coffee bar, and sharing their grievances.

Mr. Dromi, who also served as director of the Government Press Office in the early 1990s, has years of experience with the press corps, and is well positioned to comment on the differences between the two eras. Saying, “I know them personally and have the reputation to be available,” he emphasized the importance of being accessible to journalists. He goes on to describe the vast majority of the international media as professional and without bias. “They have a keen interest to serve their readers in a genuine fashion. It is true that sometimes the editors come into play and manipulate headlines which arouses the angst of the Israeli government spokespersons and readership”.

The large majority attempt to do their job properly, even if they voice criticisms. “After all, they are here to work and not to sing our praises. We should be able to survive a bit of criticism,” he continues.

The role of a government spokesperson is to provide access to information and to open doors for the journalists to senior ministerial figures. The journalists do not feel welcome entering a ministry with many layers of security: there is a feeling that someone is “looking over their shoulders, more than in the past.” It may be that the way the recent spate of stabbings of Israelis by Palestinians was reported in the media angered people both in the street and in government. “However, there are ways of expressing dissatisfaction of the reporting rather than a vendetta,” Dromi says. This is not conducive to a healthy working relationship between journalists and government spokespersons.

A member of the foreign press corps writing for a German newspaper explained to Fanack in a written interview on 24 February 2016 that he does not feel that freedom of press is endangered. However, some within and outside the Israeli government are “overreacting in a more sensitive and sometimes more aggressive manner when it comes to criticism from abroad.” However, no press credentials have so far been revoked by the Government Press Office.

Ms. Glenys Sugarman, long-time executive secretary of the Foreign Press Association (FPA) in Jerusalem explained in a written interview with Fanack, “I do not recall such an intense period of seminars, meetings, conferences and articles on the subject of the foreign media alluding to the fact and accusing them of being biased against Israel.”

Mr. Luke Baker, head of the FPA, was invited on 9 February 2016 to a special meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee subcommittee on legal warfare and was basically “put on the defensive” to prove that the foreign press is not biased. He claimed that misleading headlines, once pointed out, were immediately corrected and do not constitute institutional bias on the part of the whole industry. Baker also alluded to the fact that perhaps “the Israeli government, army and police should be making their messaging clearer”.

It may be no consolation for the foreign press corps, but the same atmosphere of control surrounds the local media. The prime minister has also held the communication portfolio for much longer than the acceptable transitional period.

The government plans to close the Israel Broadcasting Association (IBA), which was established years before the founding of the state, at the end of March 2016. The IBA is perceived to have a liberal, left-leaning voice. The closure is, however, purportedly not only political but also economic: the government claims that it has been managed inefficiently for too long. It is true that IBA cannot compete with the plethora of new radio and TV channels available today, but the IBA has been a symbol of serious public journalism and programming for decades. Thousands of journalists will lose their jobs. Not all these journalists are guaranteed to be hired by a new employer. Some of the new hires will be political appointees. The void it leaves behind and the new public-service institution that will replace it leave people wondering if it will be another beacon of the “free press” or just another mouthpiece of the government.

“This is just another way of controlling,” Uri Dromi explains; “it makes people dependent on you (government) and leads people towards internal self censorship”.

When journalists see what happens to their left-leaning colleagues who speak against the government—such as losing airtime and being pressured to change headlines to avoid friction with Prime Minster’s Office and to be more favourable to Netanyahu—they begin subliminally to censor themselves, which further tarnishes the free press.

Israel Hayom is a newspaper financed by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, which is distributed free on every corner and has become very popular. Israel Hayom is a newspaper that supports Netanyahu to such an extent that headlines are, at times, approved by the prime minister’s office. It is yet another platform for the government and undermines the economic basis of other newspapers, because its advertising costs are one-third that of their competitors.

All the aforementioned issues mean that “something bad is happening in Israel vis-a-vis free press,” as Dromi put it. The “loyalty law” proposed on 27 January 2016 by Minister of Culture Regev calls for support only of cultural institutions that are “loyal to the laws” of the state of Israel. In addition, the controversial “NGO transparency law” proposed by Minister of Justice Shaked calls for NGOs to publicize donations received from foreign nations.

These incremental steps all contribute to the feeling that Israel is today walking away from a free civil society and from a free press, both domestic and international.

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