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New libel law designed to muzzle the media

Reporters Without Borders expresses its grave concern over parliament’s approval yesterday of the first reading of a bill toughening Israel’s libel laws, despite strong objections from Israeli journalists. The bill, provides for a steep rise in the amount of damages payable for articles judged to be defamatory.

The bill, which has still to be considered by the Knesset’s law committee before its second and third readings, provides for a steep rise in the amount of damages payable by those found guilty of publishing articles judged to be defamatory.

“The severity of the financial penalties determined by this bill are clearly aimed not only at strangling Israel’s media financially but also at intimidating journalists who might dare to expose corruption and criticize the government,” Reporters Without Borders said.

“We ask that the bill is abandoned since it constitutes a real threat to freedom of the press in Israel and could undermine democracy.

The bill approved in the Knesset vote provides for libel damages of up to 300,000 shekels (60,000 euros), a sum six times higher than under existing legislation. In addition, plaintiffs in libel cases are under no obligation to provide proof of any harm suffered.

Hundreds of journalists representing the whole of the media industry gathered in Tel Aviv two days ago to protest against this repressive bill, and draw attention to the threat it represents to freedom of expression. They also criticised the pressure being put on the privately-owned Channel 10 television station.

**Radio station closed illegally**

Two days ago, the Israeli communications ministry ordered the closure of the radio station All for Peace (Kol Hashalom), based in occupied East Jerusalem and broadcasting from Ramallah in the West Bank. It was accused of not having the necessary licences to broadcast and of “inciting hatred towards Israel”.

The station’s co-director, Mossi Raz, rejected the Israeli authorities’ allegations that All for Peace was a pirate station and he described the closure order as illegal and anti-democratic. He noted the station’s headquarters were in occupied East Jerusalem, an area controlled by the Palestinian Authority to which it paid its licence fees, and thus it was not subject to Israeli law.

For the past seven years, the station has been broadcasting programmes in Hebrew and Arabic encouraging peace initiatives and dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.

Reporters Without Borders demands the reopening of the station, whose closure is a violation of media freedom and an encroachment on the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.

**Whistle-blower Anat Kam faces jail before appeal hearing**

The online journalist Anat Kam, sentenced to four-and-a-half years behind bars and a further 18 months suspended, faces imprisonment from tomorrow after a judge turned down a request by her lawyer to await the outcome of her appeal.

She was jailed last month for copying classified military documents while she was doing military service and for passing them to a journalist with the Tel Aviv-based daily Haaretz.

Earlier this month her lawyer Ilan Bombach asked the court to await the appeal verdict before sending her to prison, as the law provides, arguing that his client was not “a public risk”. However, the judge refused to delay his verdict and Kam is expected to start serving her sentence tomorrow.

Reporters Without Borders deplores the harsh treatment meted out by Israeli justice to Kam, whose trial is a worrying setback for the principle of confidentiality of sources and the freedom of the press to report on matters concerning the armed forces.

Reporters Without Borders sent a letter on 3 November to Israel’s attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, calling for the withdrawal of charges against Uri Blau, the Haaretz journalist to whom Kam supplied the classified documents. He could face a seven-year sentence for “holding classified information without authorisation and without intention to harm the security of the state” under the criminal code.

“Investigative journalists are the guarantors of transparency, a basic principle of a properly functioning democracy. They perform a useful function. His conviction would be a serious attack on the free flow of information,” the press freedom organization said.

About The Author

Freedom of expression and of information will always be the world’s most important freedom. If journalists were not free to report the facts, denounce abuses and alert the public, how would we resist the problem of children-soldiers, defend women’s rights, or preserve our environment? In some countries, torturers stop their atrocious deeds as soon as they are mentioned in the media. In others, corrupt politicians abandon their illegal habits when investigative journalists publish compromising details about their activities. Still elsewhere, massacres are prevented when the international media focuses its attention and cameras on events. Freedom of information is the foundation of any democracy. Yet almost half of the world’s population is still denied it. rsf.org

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