This past spring, in a move that largely slipped under the radar, Freedom House downgraded Israel’s press freedom status from free to partly free. Freedom House cited “the growing impact of Israel Hayom, whose owner-subsidized business model endangered the stability of other media outlets” as the primary reason for the status change, and also noted Prime Minister Netanyahu’s control over regulating the media through his own assumption of the communications portfolio. Then this past Sunday, New York-based Israeli journalist Ruth Margalit wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that went significantly further, charging that Netanyahu is stifling the press across the board, trying to “fragment” the television market in a ploy to control coverage, and working to turn the media into his own personal mouthpiece. So are things really as dire as Margalit portrays them, and is Freedom House correct to no longer describe Israel as having a free press?
This is not the first time that Freedom House has downgraded Israeli press freedom in its rankings. In 2013, it also moved Israel from the free column to the partly free column, and it cited the influence of Israel Hayom then too. I wrote at the time that the designation rang hollow given that every objection listed in the Freedom House report was immediately followed (or preceded) by a disclaimer modifying most of the actual objection or admitting that the objection has not yet come to pass, and this year’s report suffers from the same flaw.
Freedom House ranks countries’ press freedom in three categories – legal, political, and economic environments – and it left Israel’s first two unchanged from last year while downgrading the economic environment two points. The section on the economic environment talks about the pressure created by Israel Hayom on the financial sustainability of other papers since Israel Hayom – or the Bibiton, as it is pejoratively referred to by many – is distributed for free, and also criticizes the proliferation of paid content.
Israel Hayom is a blatant vehicle for pro-Netanyahu propaganda, funded at a loss of tens of millions of shekels a year by non-Israeli citizen Sheldon Adelson, and given out for free in order to make sure that it has Israel’s highest circulation. In other words, a foreign billionaire is making an indirect monetary contribution to the prime minister every day in order to influence Israeli opinion in the prime minister’s favor and crowd out critical voices. Nobody will objectively look at this and say that it’s not a huge problem, but to infer that Israel’s press is only partly free now because Israel Hayom may eventually push other newspapers out of business (despite the fact that it hasn’t yet happened) is jumping the gun.
Margalit’s criticism also focuses on Israel Hayom but is much broader. Her contention that Netanyahu is not satisfied with having one newspaper in his pocket but wants to have every media outlet submit to his control certainly has elements of truth. There is little question that Netanyahu does much to pressure and cajole favorable coverage for himself in a variety of ways, from using subordinates to intimidate journalists to complaining about headlines to leaning on wealthy media magnates who are either supporters or who want some favor from the government. This should not be whitewashed. I have heard stories from Israeli journalists about being pressured to write about certain things and not to write about others. Many are hounded incessantly on social media as leftists for challenging the government in campaigns that seem to be encouraged by the government itself. There have been ongoing controversies the past few months over Galei Tzahal (Army Radio) and ministers trying to dictate what songs are played and what poems are read. During a cabinet meeting on Sunday, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev complained that the government doesn’t have enough direct control of the media, sparking a fight between Likud ministers and Habayit Hayehudi ministers that has continued into this week, in which the latter accused the former of trying to stamp out free media and the former accused the latter of being “champions of the left.”
But the problem also should not be blown out of proportion. To begin with, some of Margalit’s assertions are oddly off-base. She brings up the government shuttering the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) as proof that Netanyahu is trying to control the news, when in reality he is madly trying to postpone the closing of the IBA and the opening of its replacement because he is afraid that the new broadcasting authority will be too independent. She claims that “most Israelis are getting their news from Israel Hayom or Walla News” as a way of proving that Netanyahu’s efforts are not about countering leftwing bias, but Israel Hayom and Yediot Ahronot are very close in their market share – 40.8% to 35.2% – and equating Israel Hayom (quite literally a propaganda mouthpiece) with an internet news portal that employs legitimate and dogged reporters like Amir Tibon and Tal Shalev is the same as comparing Pravda with Yahoo News. As Liel Leibovitz points out in Tablet, Netanyahu’s fight to control the media is in many ways a tussle between right and left playing out in the media landscape rather than in the halls of the Knesset, which doesn’t make it better but at least provides some context. But the most effective counterargument to Margalit is the content of the Israeli press itself. Israel’s press is far from perfect, but spend one day reading Israeli newspapers and watching Israeli television – where this week alone Ben Caspit in the rightwing Ma’ariv referenced Netanyahu’s “political commissars” and Finance Ministry “jackboots” – and tell me that Israeli journalists have been cowed into silence due to government intimidation. It doesn’t mean that the intimidation doesn’t exist, but that Israel’s press is still unmistakably free.
Finally, remember that this problem is not unique to Israel among Western democracies. The fact that Fox News is owned by a billionaire supporter of Republican policies and causes, or that Breitbart reads as if its headlines are written directly by Trump campaign staffers, or that the White House brings enormous pressure to bear on editors and reporters to craft stories that support its interests, does not mean that the U.S. does not have a free press. It means that there is no such thing as unbiased news; that reporters have always had to and always will walk a line between the companies or people that pay their salaries and the people who consume their products; and that the fact that people increasingly gravitate toward sources that support their own political biases means we need to be even more vigilant about recognizing our preferred sources’ biases and figuring out how much to trust. That is true if you are Israeli and it is true if you are American.