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 improved from Partly Free to Free to reflect the lifting of the blanket ban on foreign reporters visiting Gaza that had been imposed in late 2008, as well as generally vibrant coverage of political events by the Israeli press throughout 2009.
Israel features a lively, pluralistic media environment in which press freedom is generally respected. Nevertheless, due to ongoing conflicts with Palestinian groups and neighboring countries, media outlets are subject to a military censor, and journalists sometimes face travel restrictions.
Legal protections for freedom of the press are robust. While the country’s basic law does not specifically address the issue, 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 the principles laid out in the declaration of independence. 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 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 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. However, the GPO has occasionally refused to provide press cards—especially to Palestinians—on security grounds, thus preventing the affected reporters from entering Israel. In February 2009, Israel did not renew the work visas of non-Israeli journalists with the Qatar-based satellite television station Al-Jazeera and limited the station’s access to military spokespeople after Qatar cut trade ties with Israel.
Under a 1996 Censorship Agreement between the media and the military, the censor has the power—on the grounds of national security—to penalize, shut down, or stop the printing of a newspaper, or to confiscate its printing machines. In practice, however, the censor’s role is quite limited, and journalists often evade restrictions by leaking a story to a foreign outlet and then republishing it. In January 2009, two Palestinian journalists—Hadir Shaheen and Mohammed Sarhan of Al-Alam television in Ramallah—were indicted in Israel for reporting on the deployment of Israeli soldiers to Gaza without clearance from Israeli censorship authorities; after being released to house arrest, they were sentenced in June to two months in prison.
A long-standing law forbidding Israeli citizens from traveling to “enemy states” such as Lebanon and Syria 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 barred from entering the Palestinian territories without explicit military approval. However, under an informal arrangement, 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 their personal safety. This ban was extended to all foreign journalists in November 2008 on similar safety grounds, though several officials have made statements indicating that they wanted to prevent damaging articles or limit negative coverage. The military temporarily lifted the Gaza ban in December 2008, only to reinstate it and declare the Gaza Strip a closed military zone later that month, at the onset of a major Israeli military operation in the territory. 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. A December 31 Supreme Court ruling called for a limited number of foreign journalists to be allowed entry into Gaza, but this was not heeded by the military until late January 2009, by which point a ceasefire had been declared. The restrictions on foreign journalists were lifted, as was the rule barring Israeli reporters from the border area, but the older prohibition on Israelis entering Gaza remained in place. In May, the authorities detained Amira Hass—an Israeli journalist with the Israeli daily Haaretz who had been reporting from Gaza for four months—for violating the ban on Israeli citizens visiting the territory.
Deliberate violence against or harassment of journalists is rare in Israel, but it does occur, with the principal targets being Arab (both local and foreign) journalists. In February 2009, the Israeli navy confiscated the film and equipment of two Al-Jazeera journalists aboard a ship that was trying to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. The journalists claimed that the navy fired on the vessel and detained them using excessive force, but naval officials denied these charges. A number of journalists were attacked by Israeli security forces in Jerusalem in October, and one was reportedly injured by a stone-throwing Palestinian youth. The GPO has been known to impose obstacles, especially in airport security checks, for foreign journalists who are suspected of an anti-Israel political orientation. In August 2009, Golan Heights–based journalist Atta Farahat’s appeal for a commuted sentence was denied. Farahat, who wrote for the Syrian newspaper Al-Watan, is serving a three-year prison sentence for “communicating with a hostile country.”
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 are aimed at ultra-Orthodox readers, one focuses on the Arab population, 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. The major newspapers are independent, and all newspapers are privately owned and provide a range of views. Some freely criticize government policies and aggressively pursue cases of official corruption.
A diverse selection of broadcast media is available, though ownership is concentrated. 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 ultra-Orthodox, Russian-speaking, and Arabic-speaking communities in particular. Israel has the region’s highest rate of internet usage, at nearly 52 percent, and the government generally does not restrict internet access.