Israel’s Knesset gave preliminary approval to a bill that would make it illegal to distribute free newspapers. On the face, it seems an odd move. Why prevent the (literally) free circulation of ideas? On principle, it is worse. Democratic governments should not be getting involved in who can print news and how much they must charge to distribute it.
A nearly identical bill was defeated in 2010, and the target of both bills is Israel Hayom, a free-distribution newspaper that is owned by Sheldon Adelson, the mega-rich American casino owner and right-wing funder. Israel Hayom has shaken up Israel’s media and political scene, recently becoming the country’s most-read (or, at the very least, most-printed) newspaper. Critics see the paper as a shill for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and causes associated with the political right.
The Labor party MK who initiated the bill puts it another way.
“This is a bill in favor of pluralism and multiple opinions,” said Eitan Cabel, according to JTA. “It is a battle so that, in a few years, we do not become a country with only one newspaper. Sheldon Adelson wants to bury a market that is fighting for its life. Israel Hayom does not exist because of its success as a newspaper but because of the hundreds of millions in gambling funds that are funneled to it from overseas. Does anyone in this room honestly think that this is how a model for a normal newspaper looks? That this is how fair competition looks?” He assured the public, Israel Hayom “will continue to be published after the law comes into effect, and can even be sold for a symbolic price.”
He is certainly correct that print media is fighting for its life, and he is likewise correct in his implication that print media plays a crucial role in the diversity of ideas and information. But he is wrong to condemn the business model Adelson has employed. For one thing, in an ostensibly free market (society), the government should not be making arbitrary judgments about how a business funds its operations, even when that business is one as vital as the news industry, whose freedom is integral to the health of democracy.
The recent bill “would ban distribution of a free daily newspaper that is published six days a week and has at least 30 pages on weekdays and 100 pages in its weekend edition. The bill allows free distribution only for six months.” According to the Jerusalem Post, the text of the bill claims it seeks to “strengthen written journalism in Israel and ensure equal and fair conditions of competition between newspapers,” but the bill is impotent, its rules easy to circumvent. Even if they weren’t, the drowning out of voices is not the way to increase competition and free speech.
There are many threats to traditional newspapers – the internet chief among them and, if that hasn’t bled print dry yet, then neither will Israel Hayom.
A robust democracy requires a chorus of competing ideas and free-flowing public discourse – and not just for the sake of freedom. It is only on such a path that we can hope to find solutions to the problems we face, from poverty and illness to what form our news media takes.
Likud MK Moshe Feiglin probably summed it up most succinctly. “What is this?” he asked. “Since when do parliaments close newspapers? Are we Bolsheviks?”
It is heartening to see that, according to the Jewish Press, 77 percent of Israelis oppose the bill. Banning newspapers is not the way to save newspapers. Let’s hope that after the second or third reading, this bill ends up in the Knesset’s recycling bin.