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Human Rights in Israel: Freedom of Expression and Freedom of the Press in Israel

(Updated April 2005)

Since its inception in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, the culture of journalism in Israel has heeded the basic tenets of a democratic press, namely, to provide as much accuracy as possible in reporting the news, a broad range of viewpoints and independent postures regarding political and public institutions.

The initial forms of media in Israel followed the European model of the role of the press. The European culture of partisanship affected the way the Israeli press was run, and early Israeli newspapers had clear affiliations and identifications with political parties that determined their agenda.

In the early years of the state, despite working for papers with obvious tendentious perspectives, Israeli journalists attempted to maintain accuracy in reporting and strove to cover most of the important news items of the day. However, each newspaper acted as a conduit for the dissemination of a particular political philosophy and news items were colored with each paper's unique ideology. Although the papers were perceived as ideological tools, they manifested the evolvement of democracy prior to the formation of the state, by holding heated debates within each paper and among all the papers about the proposed character of the emerging country.

Two alternatives existed to this partisan press. One was the widely circulated commercial newspaper represented mainly by two national daily papers which exist to this day: "Yediot Ahronot" and "Maariv". The second was the anti-establishment paper, "Ha'olam Hazeh", edited by Uri Avneri. This paper had a dramatic affect on the role of the press in Israel in that Avneri encouraged critical review of the government, a practice that was not commonly utilized by other papers at the time.

For many years, almost all of the newspapers, with the exception of "Ha'olam Hazeh", shared a certain attitude, at times bordering on the extreme, characterized by the avoidance of any criticism of the government, in the name of what was called "the national interest". This approach reached new heights prior to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when the press heeded the military's demand not to warn their readers of the impending war. After the disastrous outcome of the war, many in the press berated themselves for being remiss in their duties and changed their attitude about their responsibility as journalists.

The 1980's were witness to an important change for the better in the role of the press in Israeli democracy. The partisan press began to change their appearance and significantly reduced their editorializing in an attempt to attract a broader audience. Accordingly, the readership of "Ha'olam Hazeh" began to wane after other national papers started to take a more aggressive and challenging stand towards the government. The emergence of free television and radio also had a great effect on the manner in which newspapers operated. This process of change culminated in 1982, during the Lebanon War, when the press felt free to criticize the government while reporting continuous and critical information about the war to the public.

An increase in circulation of the number of local newspapers, as well as the addition of a new and innovative magazine style in the press added to the growing media discourse during the 1980's. The introduction of the magazine "Monitin" helped pave the way for other types of media to adopt this type of journalism and was the model for the magazine format that became popular on television and radio. The magazine format allowed
newspapers to cover a wide range of topics (other than strict news items), such as human interest stories that held greater appeal to the broader Israeli public.

The partisan papers began to close down at the end of the 1980's as a result of economic and other reasons. Only three national daily newspapers survived this period: "Haaretz", a paper that appealed to the intellectual public; "Maariv" and "Yediot Ahronot", with more sensational and pictorial reporting, competed with each other for the same readership base. These three papers are owned by a few families, who, as a result, wield enormous power with the ability to influence the national and media agenda.

Fears that these families would use their power to dominate the media and set their own agenda, have largely proved unfounded due to the commitment by the press, as well as the electronic media, to providing full and fair coverage of news in Israel and the world. In fact, almost all incidents involving exposure of corrupt public officials have been uncovered by members of the press. Moreover, the natural competition between the papers for readership helps to keep the papers from falling prey to the whims of their owners.

Nonetheless, this author has difficulty with the fact that there are only three national newspapers. Obviously this creates a situation where not as many voices, and as wide a range of opinions, perspectives and even information as desirable, can ideally reach the public. The reasons for the lack of more national newspapers are mainly economic and it is hard to imagine how another daily newspaper could survive in today's commercial environment in Israel.

Israeli members of the press accept and abide by the western approach to journalism and innately act according to a code of ethics that includes critical analysis and reliable information as its creed. For the most part, the members of the Israeli press are educated and knowledgeable. Very few instances have been uncovered where these principles have been compromised or where facts have been distorted intentionally by a delinquent journalist or reporter.

Israel is also a very political society. Every political decision and process can and often does directly impact on the lives of the Israeli populace. The model of "tabloid journalism" which is popular in many other countries, is therefore not as readily tolerated in Israel, whose population reads its papers avidly to obtain accurate facts and news.

Consequently, the daily newspapers and other forms of Israeli media deal with fundamental issues of the day, monitor the government and provide comprehensive political information to their readers and audience.

Israelis are known for their appreciation of lively discourse and the press obliges by filling its role as a forum for polemics and debate. One of the more popular television programs in Israel is the roundtable discussion, featuring various public and private individuals vigorously expressing a spectrum of viewpoints on many issues.

The dissemination of reliable information, respect for a variety of opinions, and encouragement of active criticism of the government, are indicative of the conduct of the press in Israel's democratic society.

Recently, as in the rest of the world, a new player has entered the field, in the form of the Internet. The activity in this field is wide ranging and extensive, and enables many entities and private individuals to join in the public discourse. Israel is home to thousands of portals and sites, and all of the newspapers have online versions, containing lively discussions, some of which deal with political and public issues. The chat and talkback format provides a forum for thousands of people who, until the Internet, were unable to express themselves publicly. Overall, Israelis, who never shy away from debate, are taking good advantage of the Internet.

Israel is still a young, developing democracy. Although some members of the public question the motives of the press in criticizing the state during wartime, in general, Israeli society comprehends that a free, robust press is crucial to the existence of a strong democracy and a value worth fighting for. Instilling recognition of the dangers of trying to place restrictions on the press, and an understanding by the public of the role played by the Israeli media even under trying conditions, are part of Israel's challenge in meeting its vision to become a true democratic nation.

Sources: Ruvik Rosenthal, Ministry of Foreign Affairs