Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Status change explanation: Israel’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to the heightened conflict in Gaza, which was reflected in increased travel restrictions on both Israeli and foreign reporters and official attempts to influence media coverage of the conflict within Israel.
Freedom of the press is generally respected in Israel. 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. Moreover, court rulings based on the principles laid out in the declaration of independence have reinforced the legal standing of press freedom. Hate speech and publishing praise of violence are prohibited, and the 1948 Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance bans expressions of support for terrorist organizations or groups that call for the destruction of Israel. Publishers are required to receive a license from the Interior Ministry in order to operate a newspaper, while broadcasters are covered by a separate regulatory regime. The Government Press Office (GPO) requires journalists operating in Israel to have proper accreditation in order to attend official press conferences, gain access to government buildings, and pass through Israeli military checkpoints. Foreign journalists, including some who are strongly critical of Israeli policies, are generally accredited, though the GPO has occasionally refused to provide press cards, especially to Palestinians, citing security grounds, thus preventing the affected reporters from entering Israel.
All Israeli press reports are subject to military censorship to ensure that national security is not being compromised. The role and jurisdiction of the military censor are defined in the most recent Censorship Agreement between the media and the military, signed in 1996. Under the agreement, the censor is granted the power to penalize, shut down, or stop the printing of a newspaper, or to confiscate the printing machines that belong to the newspaper, if it is believed to be endangering national security. In practice, the censor’s role is quite limited, and journalists often evade restrictions by leaking a story to a foreign outlet and then republishing it.
A long-standing law forbidding Israeli citizens from traveling to “enemy states” without permission from the Interior Ministry has on occasion been applied to journalists, most recently in 2007. Press freedom organizations have condemned the selective application of the law, as well as the potential effects of such travel restrictions on the diversity of news available to the Israeli public. In general, Israeli journalists are restricted from entering the Palestinian territories without explicit military approval. However, an informal arrangement exists under which the military ignores the presence of Israeli journalists in the West Bank. Israeli journalists have been prohibited from entering the Gaza Strip since 2006 under a military decree that cites reasons of personal safety. This ban was extended to all foreign journalists in November 2008, citing similar safety concerns. However, suspicions that the government’s primary motivation for the ban was to control the tenor of news coverage gained ground after several officials made statements indicating that they wanted to prevent damaging articles or limit negative coverage. On December 1, veteran Haaretz correspondent Amira Hass was briefly detained for having entered Gaza. The military temporarily lifted the Gaza ban on December 5,only to reinstate it and declare the entire Gaza Strip a closed military zone on December 28,at the onset of major Israeli military operations there. An Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson said that the closed military zone extended two miles into Israeli territory, effectively preventing both local and foreign journalists from reporting on developments near the border as well. On December 31, the High Court ruled in favor of a Foreign Press Association petition that the Gaza ban be lifted and called for a limited number of journalists to be allowed entry into Gaza, but at year’s end the total ban remained in place. In addition, Israeli journalists covering the southern region faced threats from Palestinian militants throughout the year; for example, a television crew encountered gunfire from Palestinian snipers near the Gaza border in January 2008.
Deliberate violence against or harassment of journalists is rare in Israel, but it does occur, with the principal targets being Arab journalists. An article published in the Israeli newspaper Globes reported that police often use excessive force against Arab journalists, including violence and detention. George Khoury, a photographer with Al-Arabiya television, claimed that he was beaten by policemen while filming a demonstration in northern Israel on May 8. The GPO has been known to pose difficulties, especially through airport security, for foreign journalists who are suspected of an anti-Israel political orientation. At the end of 2008, Atta Farahat, who writes for the Syrian newspaper Al-Watan, continued to be detained. He had been held since July 2007 and had more than 17 separate court hearings. Israeli media have been banned by a court order from reporting on Farahat’s situation, and no information regarding the charges against him was released in 2008.
Israelis are active news consumers. Mainstream Hebrew newspapers garner an estimated one million daily readers, out of a population of approximately seven million. The pluralistic makeup of Israeli society is reflected in the vibrant press landscape, which includes 12 daily newspapers. Three of those are mainstream Hebrew outlets, one has a national-religious outlook, three operate within the ultraorthodox sector, one is aimed at Arab readers, one is printed in English, and another is in Russian. In addition, there are two daily newspapers that are distributed free of charge. A wide range of weekly newspapers and internet news sites operate, and these are also divided along religious, ethnic, and language lines. All newspapers are privately owned and provide a range of views, and some freely criticize government policies and aggressively pursue cases of official corruption.
The major newspapers are principally owned by a small number of wealthy families, some of whom have strong connections to the political leadership. Some owners have been known to influence the editorial content of their papers. In addition to print media, a diverse selection of broadcast media is available. Television underwent privatization beginning in the early 1990s, and since then the number of commercial networks has grown rapidly. Most Israelis subscribe to cable or satellite services that provide access to international commercial stations. As a result, the dominance of the state-run Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) in the television market has declined significantly. The IBA’s radio station, Kol Israel, and the military-operated Galei Tsahal remain popular, while a diverse range of pirate radio stations also operate, serving the country’s ultraorthodox, Russian-speaking, and Arabic-speaking communities in particular. Israel has the region’s highest rate of internet usage, at 74 percent, and the government generally does not restrict internet access.