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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference to the Israeli media in Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press conference at his office, Jerusalem, Nov. 14, 2015 (AP photo by Tsafrir Abayov).

Why Censorship of the Israeli Media Has Grown Under Netanyahu

Friday, Jan. 5, 2018

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing series about press freedom and safety in various countries around the world.

Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli media has seen a disturbing trend of increased political interference.

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Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, faces a growing list of political scandals, including his attempts to manipulate the Israeli media and interfere with press coverage. In one case, Netanyahu is alleged to have offered the owner of the popular newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, Arnon Mozes, a deal for more positive coverage in exchange for curbing the circulation of one of its competitors. In an email interview, Karin Karlekar, director of PEN America’s Free Expression at Risk Program and former director of Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press project, discusses the state of Israel’s media environment and Netanyahu’s track record on press freedom.

WPR: How free and open is the Israeli media environment, and how has it changed in recent years?

Karin Karlekar: Israel has for years supported a mostly open media environment, especially in comparison to other countries in the immediate region. Although press freedom is not integrated into Israel’s Basic Laws, which provide its constitutional foundations in lieu of a formal constitution, the Supreme Court has consistently affirmed and protected the right to expression, as well as expanding upon the right to information. With that said, the government, through the office of the military censor, maintains the discretion to prohibit the dissemination of any material thought to threaten domestic security.

According to ratings by Freedom House, Israel has fluctuated between a “free” and “partly free” press over the past decade, with a disturbing trend toward increased political interference in the media over the past few years. Barriers to entry within private broadcast television and print journalism remain high, and cross-platform assets have become increasingly consolidated by individuals like Arnon Mozes, an Israeli businessman and media mogul, inviting the risk of diminishing perspectives and further politicization of media coverage. Economic factors have likewise played a negative role. A noteworthy example is the increased market share of Israel Hayom, a free daily newspaper owned by American businessman Sheldon Adelson that has been accused of being a mouthpiece for Netanyahu’s government.

It is important to note that the media climate in Israel must be differentiated from that in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israeli forces and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and Hamas in Gaza, each regularly harass, detain, interrogate and arrest local journalists and broadcasters. Political pressure and violence from all corners make censorship, including self-censorship, de rigueur within the Palestinian media.

WPR: What do the recent scandals involving Netanyahu demonstrate about the Israeli media, as well as its relationship to the political establishment?

Karlekar: Netanyahu, who from 2014 to February 2017 served concurrently as minister of communication, has responded aggressively and personally against a number journalists and media outlets in an apparent attempt to delegitimize reporting that is critical of his government. In 2016, Netanyahu used the prime minister’s Facebook page to issue personal denunciations of leading investigative journalists, including Ilana Dayan and Raviv Drucker. In addition, Netanyahu has actively used the court system to promulgate a series of libel and defamation lawsuits against reporters.

Netanyahu’s antagonistic interventions against individual reporters, combined with the growing reach of the friendly daily Israel Hayom, are illustrative of an effort by the political establishment to both increase their control over traditional media and to circumvent it. Pro-Netanyahu outlets do not have hegemonic media control in Israel. Israel Hayom accounts for roughly 40 percent of weekday readership exposure, meaning newspapers like Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel Post, Globes and Haaretz—each with diverse political leanings—are widely disseminated in the country. However, Netanyahu’s actions have the potential for a chilling effect on the Israeli media, which must weigh any critical coverage against the possibility of lost credentials and crippling personal lawsuits. Finally, by presenting journalists as the natural antagonist of the government, Netanyahu undermines public trust in the media, and with it, the values of the stories that they present.

WPR: What is the role of the military censor in Israel, and what impact has it had?

Karlekar: The Israeli military censor has operated as a unit of the Directorate of Military Intelligence since the mid-1960s as part of an agreement between the Israeli Defense Forces and media representatives. The primary role of the censor is to prevent the dissemination of sensitive security information that could harm the state or benefit its enemies. In the past, this has included details on the Israeli nuclear program, the movement of commodities like oil and water, and military policies during a number of operations, including most recently the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. Israeli journalists seeking to publish information that otherwise may fail to escape the scrutiny of the military censor have traditionally leaked such stories to foreign outlets before reporting or quoting from them.

Although the military censor is limited and subject to judicial scrutiny, in recent years efforts have been made to extend its reach, particularly into social media. It is unclear whether this expansion of authority is being driven from within the office of the censor, the Ministry of Defense or from Netanyahu himself. But regardless, antagonism toward the media seems pervasive within the government, exemplified by Netanyahu’s appointment of Miri Regev, a former military censor and aggressive critic of oppositional voices, as the minister of culture and sport in 2014. In 2015, the number of gag orders issued rose 30 percent to 231 from a low of 177 in 2012, according to data from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

In 2016, at least 30 bloggers and Facebook users were ordered to submit military- and security-related content for review prior to publication. This displays a troubling inclination by the government to expand the limits on expression in nontraditional sources. It is also evident in the ongoing prosecutions of creative artists like the Palestinian poet and Israeli citizen Dareen Tatour, who is under house arrest while she faces legal charges of inciting violence and supporting terrorism for three posts she published on social media. Like the prime minister’s attacks on journalists, these instances of censorship not only limit the flow of particular pieces of information or opinions, but also create a general climate of anxiety regarding expression that can lead to self-censorship.

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