by Hillel Schenker
Israel has no constitution due to the decision of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and his secular associates to defer a confrontation with the Zionist religious minority over the nature of the Jewish state in 1948. Thus there aren’t constitutional guarantees for freedom of the press. Yet Professor Ze’ev Segal, whose book in Hebrew Freedom of the Press: Between Myth and Reality (Papyrus Publishing House, Tel Aviv University, 1996) is one of the primary references on the topic, writes that “freedom of expression is a ‘supreme value’ in the Israeli legal system. It is considered, according to a legal declaration by an Israeli Supreme Court Justice, ‘the very soul of democracy.’” However, he adds that “there is a significant gap between the myth created by such legal declarations and the reality....”
Another expert, legal commentator Moshe Negbi, wrote that the Israeli press “has tied itself by a series of agreements and understandings to the belly-button of the establishment. Instead of focusing on exposure of information about the government and a critical evaluation of its functioning, it has helped the government in its attempts to hide information from the general public. This path, and the abandonment of the basic values of a free press, dragged the press — and the entire state — into the worst security mishap we have ever known, the Yom Kippur War mishap.”
An Ideological Press
The history of the Israeli press is rooted in the political history of Zionism. The father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, who convened the First Zionist Congress back in 1897, was himself a journalist for the Viennese Neue Freie Presse. He once labeled his rival, Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg), head of the cultural Zionist trend, “an obscure, spiteful journalist.” Professor Dan Caspi, the outgoing chairman of the Israeli Communications Association, notes in his basic primer Mass Media and Politics (The Open University, 1997), that “the majority of the newspapers in the pre-state period were founded as ideological organs of political trends, and were under the ideological authority of the political parties and dependent on their financial backing. The party institutions and their leaders were involved in the selection process for the sensitive senior positions in the paper, particularly in the choice of the editor.”
However, a brief glance at any newsstand or bookstore reveals that almost all of the political dailies and periodicals, which played such a significant role in the history of the Israeli press, have closed: The Revisionist Hamashkif (1938-1949), the General Zionist Haboker (1935-1965), the Progressive Zmanim (1948-1966), Herut’s (forerunner of the Likud) Herut (1948-1965), Hayom (1966-1969), Maki’s (the Communist’s) Kol Ha’am (1947-1971), Mapam’s Al-Hamishmar (1943-1995) and the Histadrut’s Mapai and later Labor-associated Davar (1925-1996). Only the small religious organs and the Arabic-language Communist Al-Ittihad remain.
Today, there are only three major Hebrew-language dailies, and they are all family-owned commercial concerns: the quality paper Ha’aretz (founded in 1923), run by the Schocken family; the mass circulation tabloid Yediot Aharonot (founded in 1939), run by the Moses family, and its “twin” rival, Ma’ariv (founded in 1948 by breakaway journalists from Yediot), run by the Nimrodi family.
A Protective Approach
Both in the pre-state yishuv period and in the first decades of the post-1948 state, most of the editors felt that their primary role was educational, to help in the state-building process. Such values as freedom of the press and the idea of being a public watchdog were secondary. The Editors Committee was the epitome of this didactic, protective establishment approach.
Caspi explains that its origins were in the Reaction Committee, founded by the editors of the Hebrew-language press in 1942, who “felt the need for guidance from the Jewish community’s leadership on publication policy concerning sensitive matters, such as the expulsion of ma’apilim (illegal immigrants) and the search for weapons in Hebrew settlements.” This was a special arrangement, probably without precedent in the democratic world, in which the heads of the press voluntarily initiated political regulation of the media. After the establishment of the state in 1948, prime minister Ben-Gurion saw great advantages in this arrangement, and he frequently convened the newly renamed Editors Committee to share important information with the editors, on condition that it not be published.
This arrangement began to collapse after 1977, when Menachem Begin and the Likud took over the reins of government. They were suspicious of the press, which they considered to be hostile towards the Likud, and they rarely convened the forum.
A second means of establishment of political regulation of the press is military censorship. Its origins also stem from the pre-state period. The British Mandatory government issued a series of Defense Regulations, which were eventually adopted by the sovereign State of Israel as well. Regulation 87 states that “the censor has the right to issue an injunction which will prevent, in general and in particular, the publication of material whose publication may, or is likely, to damage, in its view, the defense of Israel or the public good or the public order.”
In the early years of the state, the military censor used its powers freely to close Al-Hamishmar, Yediot Aharonot, Haboker and Davar, usually for periods of a day or two. The Editors Committee challenged this arrangement, and new, voluntary understandings were reached between the editors and the government. In 1949, it was agreed that censorship would not be applied to “political matters” (opinions). In 1951, the right to close a paper was taken from the military censor and transferred to a Committee of Three: a representative of the Editors Committee, a representative of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and a representative of the general public. In 1966, in addition to security matters, non-military subjects, such as fuel deals, immigration from certain countries, Israeli national foreign loan policy (!) and sensitive water matters were added to the list of censorable subjects.
During the 1950s and 1960s, it wasn’t unusual for certain newspapers to leave a blank space in an article that was censored. For some, it was a matter of last-minute necessity, and for others, like Uri Avnery’s muckraking Ha’olam Hazeh magazine, it was a form of protest.
One of the last times that a daily was closed was the case of Hadashot (1984-1993), a Schocken family-owned daily which consciously chose not to join the Editors Committee. It was closed for four days in 1984 for not sending information to the censor about the “Bus 300 Affair,” when terrorists hijacked a civilian bus, were captured alive, and later killed by the military authorities.
Road to Freedom
The struggle for freedom of the press within Israeli society has been carried out in stages. While there is no constitutional protection for freedom of the press, the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence have served the courts as a basis for judicial rulings. Thus, in one of the first landmark decisions concerning the press in the 1950s, the Supreme Court ruled that a government attempt to close the Communist daily Kol Ha’am was inconsistent with the idea that the state will be “based on principles of freedom.” This is a direct quote from the Declaration. This principle was reinforced by the passing of two basic (the equivalent of constitutional) laws in 1994: the Respect for Man and His Freedoms Law, and the Freedom of Profession Law. The recent Freedom of Information Law, passed in May 1998, which authorizes public access to governmental information and records, while flawed by many restrictions, only serves to reinforce these freedoms.
During the first decades of the state, there were two basic methods of getting around the “Big Brother” approach of the Editors Committee and the IDF censor.
Items published in the international press were considered to be in the public domain, and could usually be reprinted in the Israeli press. Thus, Israeli journalists used to feed information to their foreign colleagues, and then reprint it in their own papers. The other technique was to ignore the Editors Committee and to try to get around the military censor by using opaque language.
Uri Avnery and his Ha’olam Hazeh (1949-1993) weekly magazine were at the forefront of these efforts. As the editor of a weekly, Avnery was ineligible for the Editors Committee, and he wouldn’t have joined it anyway, because he wanted the freedom to attack the establishment. While criticized for being a combination of politics in the front and “porn” in the back (very mild in today’s terms), Avnery laid the foundations for future anti-establishment investigative journalism.
The major turning point on the road to freedom of the press was the Yom Kippur War. The entire Israeli society was traumatized by the unexpected surprise attack by the combined Egyptian-Syrian forces on October 6, 1973. After the attack was repulsed, with great loss to human life, a mass grass-roots movement took to the streets to protest the great governmental mishap.
Journalists across the board also were traumatized, and did some serious soul-searching. They had accepted the governmental briefings that had downplayed the threat of war, and felt that they too bore responsibility for the national misreading of reality. Many vowed never again to rely on the government’s “guided journalism.”
The Nuclear Issue
The problem of writing about Israeli nuclear policy is a special issue, which warrants an entire article in itself. “In 1960, when Ben-Gurion finally admitted that the so-called Dimona textile plant was actually a nuclear facility,” Uri Avnery told this writer, “the Parisian weekly l’Express published an article on Israel’s nuclear program.” When he decided to print a translation of the article in Ha’olam Hazeh, “word for word,” without even changing a comma, “the censor refused to allow me to reprint it. I brought a petition against the ruling to the Supreme Court, the first time such a challenge had been posed to the Israeli censor.” Avnery lost the case, and he adds that “the proceedings were so secretive that, till this day, the fact that there was such a challenge is unknown.” At about the same time, while he was a lecturer at Haifa University, Professor Alan Dowty was visited by a member of the security establishment and warned not to continue when he tried to write about Israeli nuclear policy.
Yet by 1986, when the London Sunday Times published former nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu’s exposé, “Revealed: the Secret of Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal,” no less than three Israeli dailies — Ha’aretz, Al-Hamishmar and The Jerusalem Post — published extensive excerpts from the article. Still, some things change and some things don’t. In 1994, the censor banned an article by Dr. Avner Cohen on “Israel’s Nuclear Option in the Years 1949-1967,” intended for publication in an American scholarly journal. In February 1995, Dr. Cohen was warned by a senior security officer, when he arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, that there was concern that his research into Israel’s nuclear program was in violation of Israel’s censorship laws. When Dr. Cohen, currently living in Washington, eventually published his groundbreaking study of the history of Israel’s nuclear program, Israel and the Bomb (Columbia University Press, 1998), which he asserts is based solely on public sources and interviews, Ha’aretz gave him a cover story in its weekly magazine supplement, and it wrote a spirited editorial in defense of his right to write the book while calling for a public debate on the issue. In a similar sphere, Yediot Aharonot frequently consults with controversial former Mossad agent-turned-author Victor Ostrovsky whenever a story about the Mossad breaks.
With the decline of the party press, the fading of the Editors Committee and the reduced activation of the censor by the government, the road is presumably clearer for freedom of expression. This tendency is reinforced by the end of the government monopoly in the electronic media, the exposure to CNN, the BBC, even Jordanian, and possibly in the future, Palestinian news broadcasts on cable TV, so it has become even harder for the government to control the news. And we can’t forget the Internet, where the name and address of the Mossad head was published, against the government’s wishes.
Today, freedom of expression faces new challenges. The ratings wars, between Yediot Aharonot and Ma’ariv, and between TV’s Channel 1 and Channel 2, have led to the “talk-showization” and “tabloidization” of much of the Israeli media. This leaves less room for serious and creative investigative journalism and commentary. Lazy and pressured journalists and editors interested in a quick story also tend to rely too much on briefings and publicity releases.
The commercial press is clearly not immune to corruption, as evidenced by the conviction of Ma’ariv publisher and editor, Ofer Nimrodi, for eavesdropping on his own employees. Yediot Aharonot editor Moshe Vardi was forced to resign under similar circumstances. And while Ma’ariv allowed its writers Amnon Dankner and Ron Meiberg to write a defense of Nimrodi, it prevented two other employees, Sima Kadman and Moshe Negbi, from publishing an article critical of Nimrodi’s behavior. Kadman promptly resigned and moved over to the rival Yediot Aharonot.
Another looming danger is cross-ownership, since both Ma’ariv and Yediot Aharonot have significant interests in the Channel 2 production companies. In addition, with the collapse of the papers associated with the Histadrut and the left-wing parties, there is little attention paid to socioeconomic issues from a working-class, progressive or peripheral perspective. However, much to the chagrin of the Likud, all three major Hebrew-language dailies offer varying degrees of editorial support for the peace process and the Oslo Accords. After all, peace is good for business, and they all represent business interests.
While there are relapses, such as the current heavy-handed attempt by Likud functionaries Israeli Broadcasting Authority head, Uri Porat, and the new Israeli Broadcasting Executive chairman, Gil Samsonov, to “sweep the stable clean,” i.e., to throw out the “left-wing mafia that controls the electronic media,” it is fair to say that Professor Segal’s comment that “during the last decade, the press has undergone a significant transformation, and it is now acting, unlike before, as a watchdog for the public’s right to receive information,” is accurate.