Freedom House released its annual “Freedom of the Press” report yesterday, in which it analyzes global press freedom and ranks countries by their levels of press freedom. Much like it does with its widely cited measure of freedom in the world, countries are given a designation of Free, Partly Free, and Not Free, and this year’s press freedom report contained at least one surprise, which is that Israel has been downgraded from Free to Partly Free when it comes to press freedom. For anyone who follows Israel and is a consumer of Israeli media, this comes as a head-scratching development, as Israel has four major newspapers that are evenly divided across the political spectrum, does not have any issues of jailing or intimidating journalists, and the press regularly investigates and criticizes the government for offenses big and small. Yet, Israel’s score for 2013 moved from a 30 to a 31, changing its overall press freedom status.
In the country report on Israel, Freedom House explains that Israel’s status was changed because of Ha’aretz journalist Uri Blau’s indictment for possession of state secrets, concerns surrounding Channel 10’s license renewal, and Israel Hayom’s market dominance in the newspaper sector threatening the viability of other papers. On the other hand, as the report notes, “Legal protections for freedom of the press are robust, and the rights of journalists are generally respected in practice. The country’s Basic Law does not specifically address the issue, but the Supreme Court has affirmed that freedom of expression is an essential component of human dignity. The legal standing of press freedom has also been reinforced by court rulings citing principles laid out in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.”
Some further perusal of the Freedom House section on Israel reveals the depths of the absurdity of the designation of the Israeli press as Partly Free. Every piece of evidence in the report for declining press freedom is immediately followed by the equivalent of a small print disclaimer letting the reader know that the alarmist claims are either not quite so alarmist or have not actually occurred. Freedom House lets us know that the media “continue to face the threat of libel suits” and then admits that no such suit has actually been brought without being withdrawn. Blau was indicted on charges of espionage for holding thousands of classified documents, but this was the first time the law had been used against a journalist in decades and Blau cut a plea deal in which he is serving – the horror, the horror! – four whole months of community service. The Knesset has debated a number of draft laws that would limit press freedom of expression and raise the statutory compensation amounts in libel suits, yet not one of these bills was actually passed so nothing has actually changed. Israel Hayom has captured 40% of the newspaper market and put pressure on other papers, so much so that Ma’ariv almost had to close, but in the end Ma’ariv was bought and is not closing, and just as Israel had two major rightwing papers and two major leftwing papers in 2012, the exact same lineup remains in 2013. I could go on, but you get the picture. The Freedom House report reads as if the designation of Israeli press freedom as Partly Free was made ahead of time, and then someone went hunting for facts to back it up but couldn’t even find the clear and unfettered evidence they were looking for. Doing some really top notch reporting in the Times of Israel, Haviv Rettig Gur talked to “Freedom of the Press” project director Karin Karlekar, who admitted that the issue of libel suits was not about how they are handled in Israel specifically but because Freedom House generally opposes libel suits, that the issue with Blau isn’t even over the Blau case per se but that Freedom House is worried that this will be the beginning of a trend – despite the fact that this is literally the only instance of this law being used in decades – and that despite Israel Hayom’s market dominance Israel’s media is “very diverse.” So basically, Freedom House doesn’t have much of a problem with press freedom in Israel now, but what Israeli press freedom might look like in the future should a number of things go wrong.
In case you are wondering why Israel and its supporters constantly decry double standards and Israel being unfairly singled out for criticism, here is Exhibit A. Nobody claims that Israel is perfect, least of all me, but there’s no shortage of Israeli missteps to criticize without making new ones up. The idea that Israel’s press is not completely free is ridiculous, particularly to anyone who has spent even five minutes reading Israeli newspapers or watching Israel television, and if Freedom House wants to credibly assert differently, it’s going to have to come up with something better than a bunch of “yes, but” speculation.