No, But...

Is The Israeli Press Only "Partly Free"?

Ali Gharib on the controversy over a D.C. thinktank's report on Israeli press freedom.

When the Washington-based think-tank Freedom House released its 33rd annual global rankings of press freedom, an uproar ensued. Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick called the ranking "fraudulent." Commentary's Jonathan Tobin wrote that it was a "smear," and that "Freedom House ought to be ashamed of tarnishing its impressive brand in this manner." The more level-headed Michael Koplow piled on: "In case you are wondering why Israel and its supporters constantly decry double standards and Israel being unfairly singled out for criticism, here is Exhibit A," he wrote on Ottomans and Zionists. "The idea that Israel’s press is not completely free is ridiculous, particularly to anyone who has spent even five minutes reading Israeli newspapers or watching Israel television."

Why the outrage? Because Israel's press freedom status was changed from "free" to "partly free." The critics have something of a point: Israelis voraciously consume media that, for the most part, operates uninhibited. And yet there are factors in the Israeli media environment—both long-established dynamics and more recent developments—that spell trouble for press freedom. Freedom House found that the new developments merited just a one point increase. But Israel's score last year was already a 30, and countries scoring at 31 points fall into the rigid parameters of a "partly free" designation. "We rate every country according to the same set of methodology questions," Karin Karlekar, a co-author of Freedom House's report, told me. "We have categorizations that are very stark. But when you look at the actual numeral change, you sort of see that actually makes sense."

While, in interviews, a half dozen Israeli journalists agreed that a designation of "partly free" didn't match their experience working in Israel, some thought that issues existed and recent developments were troubling. Barak Ravid, the diplomatic correspondent for the daily Haaretz, said he understood the one-point change, but objected to the designation. "At the end of the day, you need to find a system to measure [press freedom]," he told me. "But I just think it was too technical. I don't think that the report and the rating catches the complexity of journalists in Israel today." Not everyone held such a nuanced view: the Maariv journalist Ben-Dror Yemini, known as a maverick and antagonist of the left, called the rankings "something between embarrassing and ridiculous." He didn't know about the recent developments this year, but wrote in an e-mail, "I just know that the Israeli media is enjoying full, completely full, freedom of expression."According to Freedom House's country report on Israel, new developments there include the rise of Israel Hayom and the financial pressures it exerts on the media market, as well as the poor financial shape of print media organizations generally; the indictment and subsequent guilty plea by journalist Uri Blau for possessing secret government documents; and "instances of politicized interference" with Israel's public broadcasting authority. Glick, Tobin and Koplow see these all as either totally wrong-headed criticisms or so minimally problematic as to be negligible. Ravid disagreed: "The change from 30 to 31 was the right message, but the result, in their categorizing, was the wrong result," he told me. "The vector that they were pointing at was true, but it doesn't mean that Israel is 'partly free.'"

Michael Omer-Man, the managing editor of the independent liberal site +972 Magazine, agreed on the items listed by Freedom House. They "all add up to a situation in which journalists, editors and publishers are more likely to self-censor," he said. "In a country where much of the mainstream media has long acted as an unofficial mouthpiece for the security establishment, these cases stand to threaten the freedom of those journalists and media outlets that dare to challenge the establishment." While Tobin and Koplow both pointed to Blau's lenient sentence in a complicated case for possessing secret documents, Koplow, who mocked the sentence of four months of community service ("the horror, the horror!") added that "this was the first time the law had been used against a journalist in decades." But reviving the practice might just as easily be seen as a grave portent for journalists. "The Uri Blau conviction as part of a plea bargain alone merits a downgrade," said Omer-Man.

One of the built-in factors that keeps Israel's score high is its system of military censorship on security issues. "The censorship board was one of the reasons Israel scored so high before," Freedom House's Karlekar told me. I asked if any other countries rated as "free" had such a system. "As far as I know, there aren't any," she said. Tobin, though, sought to explain the military censor away: "Israel remains a nation at war, besieged by real enemies who shoot rockets and launch terrorist attacks against it as well as threatening it with extinction," he wrote. "That military censorship of security-related stories still exists is regrettable but necessary." In Barak Ravid's estimation—the censor's records are kept secret—about three precent of security stories submitted to censors get rejected or modified. "We're talking here about small numbers," he said. "In the last two years or three years, those small incidents, you feel that there is more monitoring." He added, "Their mandate is independent, but still they are under some pressures. And when they feel that the politicians are obsessed with leaks, they are also more careful with what they authorize and don't authorize."

Ravid's remarks about the censor were of a piece with other pressures brought to bear on Israeli press, especially financial health of media organizations. With economic woes, Ravid said, "your owner or your publisher is much more sensitive to lawsuits or problems with the government." That was a factor in Freedom House's criticisms of Israel Hayom, a free paper supportive of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and owned by his American megadonor Sheldon Adelson. Israel Hayom became Israel's top daily by offering free home delivery—something Karlekar said she hadn't seen elsewhere—alongside handouts at major intersections. "The free papers in most countries don't have an explicit political agenda," Karlekar said. Akiva Eldar, a veteran Israeli commentator now with Al Monitor, told me, "Israel Hayom is not a paper with [an ideological] line, like the New York Post or Washington Times." Instead, it's purely party politics: "We call it Bibi Hayom," he said, referring to Netanyahu's nickname, Bibi. While Glick defended the paper as emerging victorious because of "market forces," Israel Hayom reportedly offers advertisements at 25 percent of market rates, forcing down prices at other papers. Estimates have the paper operating at losses of tens of millions of dollars every year, made up by Adelson's largess. "It's not about getting money," Ravid told me. "It's about getting a political effect on people."

The issues touched on by Freedom House only constitute some of the problems in Israeli media today. "The [Israeli military's] attacks on journalists in Gaza during [a brief war last fall]—along with less violent forms of targeting Israeli, Palestinian and international journalists in the West Bank—are perhaps much more serious, and might warrant an even more dramatic downgrade than one point," said +972's Omer-Man. (+972 head Noam Sheizaf echoed his deputy: "Israelis and their supporters confuse freedom of press with freedom of opinion. An Israeli Jew can say almost everything on his government's policy.") Ravid returned repeatedly to political pressures by the Netanyahu government and their freezing out of journalists. "It's not a problem of freedom of the press. It's a problem of whether they feel that the press is part of the values and democratic institutions of the country," he said. "It's getting harder to work as a journalist in Israel."

Critics of Freedom House should heed these Israeli journalists, even liberals, who do find growing problems in their work and role in society (if not the Freedom House designation). The three factors cited by Freedom House for the one point change may be minor, and some may have been resolved. But they bear nonetheless on Press Freedom there. Ignoring them entirely would indeed be a double-standard—one in Israel's favor.