Oh my, oh my, the impassioned (if minuscule) protests we’re seeing against the new amendment to the 1965 libel law, which recently passed its first reading in the Knesset! You’d think that the government was about to legalize strangling budding Woodwards and Bernsteins.
MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) declared (I’m assuming with a straight face, even if his head was screwed on backwards) that “1984 is already here, and it’s awful.” Kadima leader Tzipi Livni called it a “silencing law.” A Tuesday protest organized by (who else?) Peace Now and Meretz which met (where else?) on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv chanted: “Bibi, Bibi, you have gone too far. Israel is not Iran.” Later, at Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque, journalists and wanna-bes got together to hear Meretz MK Nitzan Horovitz breathlessly exclaim: “The attempts to raise the damages awarded in libel suits to monstrous proportions is meant to strike fear into the media and prevent it from investigating and reaching the truth.”
Even Reporters Without Borders, who usually deal with serious threats to journalists and legitimate freedom of speech issues, have joined the fun. On their current website, alongside an article about Rafiq Tagi of Azerbaijan, a Sanat journalist and critic of Islam and the Iranian government, who died of multiple stab wounds from an unidentified assailant as he was returning to his Baku home on foot on the night of November 19, and the continued sexual attacks on women reporters in Tahrir Square, they take time to express ”grave concern” over the proposed bill, asking “that [it] is abandoned since it constitutes a real threat to freedom of the press in Israel and could undermine democracy.”
Honestly, with all the overblown rhetoric, I couldn’t actually understand what it was all about, and so decided to simply read the law. It’s less than a page long and what I understood is that it proposes to raise the amount of damages that the court may award a victim of libel from NIS 50,000 to NIS 300,000. In the case of malicious libel – the intent of which is to deliberately hurt the victim – these amounts are doubled. These amounts are paid even if damages cannot be proven.
Next, the law stipulates that publications must give victims of libel the opportunity to publish in full a response to the allegations published against them within a reasonable time period.
I rubbed my eyes and read it again, looking for the totalitarian agenda, the horrible attack on our precious democracy. In fact, I thought the law sounded not only reasonable but necessary and just.
Let’s start with the amounts. You can’t use the bathroom in any district court without paying your lawyers thousands of dollars. Unless you are an oligarch, a lawyer, or a corrupt politician, there is no way a normal person could begin to defend themselves against libel for such a pittance as NIS 50,000.
As for the amount being disconnected from damages, go prove how much the pain in your heart is worth when your child or grandchild is taunted in school that their parent is a “crook.” Go prove the worth of damages in the way your friends look at you and how they speak about you in private after reading their weekend dose of poison.
Moreover, far from heralding the end of democracy, asserting the legal right of those slandered to defend themselves within a reasonable period of time in the same media that defamed them seems to me to be where democracy begins, not ends.
As for the burden of proof falling on the defamer, not the defamed, this is vital. If someone calls you an ax murderer, he should have to prove it, because your very effort to defend yourself only lends credence to the idea. Who can forget Richard Nixon proclaiming: “I am not a crook.”
And so why the frenzy of protests? “It will kill investigative journalism.” Really? Or will it simply kill poorly researched articles based on hearsay and innuendo from unnamed sources, who modern journalists puff out their chests and declare must be defended, whether or not they’ve lied, purposefully misled, or simply had an ax to grind?
Besides, that’s already the law. The only thing the new law changes is how expensive it will be to publish the usual shoddy, defamatory piece of fish-wrap that goes for journalism today. Maybe, since shocking headlines make money, then greater potential losses from publishing false ones that destroy lives might make editors and their staffs work a little harder to ensure accuracy.
Let’s be honest here. Israeli journalists, like their counterparts all over the world, are not for the most part careful crusaders and meticulous fact-checkers. Too many have developed an easy, reciprocal relationship with crooked lawyers, politicians and PR firms in which they write up whatever secret poison is being spilled into their ears in exchange for the opportunity to publish scandalous tidbits that make sensational headlines. How many times have we read about Sara Netanyahu’s maids? How many times have we seen headlines proclaiming the arrest or imminent arrest of public figures that never happened?
As for the real stories, like that of a former president who turned out to be a rapist, it doesn’t seem to me that a few extra shekels would have stopped anyone from digging deeper into that morass. Anyhow, as it went to trial, we got court evidence, not unverified, libelous disinformation from the president’s defenders or his critics.
This law won’t completely stop gossip from parading as news. But it might give the public a fighting chance not to become victims and also to enjoy more reliable and less biased information. There is only one side to be on in this particular fight, and that’s with our prime minister. The law has passed its first reading. I wish it Godspeed in the near future to become the law of our ever more democratic land.
This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post on 2 December, 2011.