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Bill To Ban Free Israeli Newspapers Faces Strong Pushback

With the Knesset now in session, a highly controversial bill has drawn the ire of Knesset members, legal experts, media watchdog organizations, free speech activists and journalists.

The measure, called the “bill for the promotion and protection of the printed media in Israel” but informally known as the “anti-Israel Hayom bill,” is set to be brought before Israel’s powerful Ministerial Committee for Legislation in the coming weeks. The proposal seeks to outlaw daily newspapers in Israel whose business model includes free distribution to the general public.

There is little doubt that the bill’s initiators, from on both on the left and the right, are specifically targeting the Sheldon Adelson-owned newspaper Israel Hayom, whose free-distribution strategy has in recent years taken away a significant number of readers from its competition.

The text of the bill, submitted by MK Eitan Cabel (Labor) and co-signed by Yoel Razbozov (Yesh Atid), Robert Ilatov (Likud Beiteinu), Elazar Stern (Hatnua), Ariel Attias (Shas), and Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi), claims that the measure seeks to “strengthen written journalism in Israel and ensure equal and fair conditions of competition between newspapers,” according to a Jerusalem Post translation.

But Professor Eli Pollak, chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (IMW), which calls itself the leading Israeli media watchdog organization, said the bill represents exactly the opposite of its stated goal.

“This legislation is anti-liberal and makes no sense in a free market where anyone can do what they want as long as it’s legal and ethical,” Pollak told JNS. “It’s fair competition. There is no reason to try and close [Israel Hayom] down or stop their way of working.”

MK Shaked recently admitted to a Channel 2 television interviewer that the bill “won’t pass.” Analysts suggested Shaked, along with her party’s chairman, Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett, initially supported the bill from the political right since it essentially targeted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel Hayom has been accused of pro-Netanyahu bias.

“Israel Hayom is not a newspaper. It is Pravda,” Bennett said in March, referring to the Russian political newspaper associated with the Communist Party. “It’s the mouthpiece of one person, the prime minister.”

IMW’s Pollak said there is “no question the legislation is politically motivated.”He noted that “for years Yediot [Aharanot], which calls itself ‘the newspaper of the country,’ had a monopoly and nobody cared.”

“But,” he added, “when Yediot’s and Haaretz’s [market] shares went down and other newspapers including Israel Hayom and Makor Rishon went up, that posed a problem for those that don’t want right-wing opinions to be heard.”

A 2011 Target Group Index survey revealed that four years after its inception, Israel Hayom’s readership had surpassed that of Yediot – formerly Israel’s most widely read daily newspaper – with a 39.3-percent market share compared to Yediot’s 37 percent. Yediot remained the most-read weekend newspaper.

The latest TGI survey, released in January, showed Israel Hayomremaining the country’s most-read daily, with 38.6-percent readership (compared to 38.4 percent for Yediot) in the second half of 2013.

Pollak cites MK Cabel’s political bias in going after Israel Hayom. He said Cabel was responsible for shutting down Arutz 7, the right-wing radio station in Beit El that in 2002 was denied a broadcasting license and had its studios raided and broadcasting equipment confiscated.

On the other hand, when Israel’s Channel 10 television station “was going to be closed down when it didn’t meet its financial commitments, [Cabel] defended it,” Pollak noted.

“This is a very clear political game, which won’t succeed because it’s wrong,” said Pollak. “In a democracy with freedom of the press and freedom of business, this can’t go through.”

Yossi Fuchs, a Ramat Gan attorney with 15 years of experience in Israeli constitutional law, agrees the bill will never pass.

About the Author: Josh Hasten is president of the Jerusalem-based Bar-Am public relations firm. He and his family are moving to Gush Etzion this summer.


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