NEW YORK – A combination of economic pressures, a rare indictment against a journalist for possession of confidential military documents, and limits on travel to neighboring states are among the reasons cited by the Washington think tank Freedom House for downgrading Israel’s “press freedom” ranking from “free” to “partly free.”

With 31 points in the 100-point scale, where a higher number represents more restrictions on press freedom, Israel is tied with Chile, South Korea, and Namibia in 65th place in a list of 197 countries. Close behind Israel in the index are Italy, India, and Greece.

The downgrade was announced Wednesday as part of the group’s release of its “Freedom of the Press 2013” report.

The press is basically free in Israel, the report notes. “Legal protections for freedom of the press are robust, and the rights of journalists are generally respected in practice,” the section on Israel begins.

“The country’s Basic Law [sic] does not specifically address the issue [press freedom],” the report explains, “but the Supreme Court has affirmed that freedom of expression is an essential component of human dignity. The legal standing of press freedom has also been reinforced by court rulings citing principles laid out in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.”

However, 2012 saw a few incidents that Freedom House worries could be the start of a negative trend.

Uri Blau (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Uri Blau (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The case of Uri Blau — a Haaretz reporter indicted for possession of classified military documents — was a key incident mentioned in the report, and cited repeatedly in an event Wednesday morning in Washington that publicized the new findings.

Blau’s “indictment represented the first time the [espionage] law in question had been used against a journalist in several decades,” the report explains. Though the maximum sentence under law could have reached seven years in prison, “in a July 2012 plea agreement, Blau admitted to holding classified documents without intention to harm national security, and was sentenced to four months of community service.”

The use of an espionage law against a journalist was “an anomaly in Israel,” acknowledged Dr. Karin Karlekar, project director for the “Freedom of the Press” index. “This was the first time the law has been used against an actual journalist. But the fear would be that this is the beginning of a trend.”

Blau’s case dropped Israel a single point (out of 100) below the “free” line, according to the report. If such a case is not repeated in 2013, Karlekar said, Israel might rejoin the ranks of countries categorized by the group as “free.”

“The media continue to face the threat of libel suits,” the report also noted. One prominent example: “At the beginning of 2011, journalist Raviv Druker of Channel 10 revealed an investigation of alleged corruption involving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal expense account. Shortly after the report appeared, Netanyahu and his wife initiated a $700,000 libel suit against Channel 10. In October 2012, the suit was withdrawn following a mediation process in which the station agreed not to harm the prime minister’s reputation in the future. The deal marked the second time within two years that Channel 10 was obliged to reach such an agreement.”

Asked if the group factored in issues of fair reporting and whether the libel charges are found to be justified in the courts, Karlekar suggested that the group opposed the criminalization of libel generally. She told The Times of Israel on Wednesday that “our preference would be for libel to not be a criminal offense, and to be handled by regulatory bodies like a press council.”

The ability to sue journalists for libel “has a chilling effect. And we take it more seriously if it’s government officials bringing libel [suits] against journalists.”

The report ranks a country’s press freedom in three arenas, the “legal environment,” the “political environment,” and the “economic environment.” Each holds roughly equal weight in the final ranking.

The last element, the economic environment, is not a strict measure of free expression, but affects the ability of the media to perform its watchdog duties in an independent fashion, according to the group.

“We’re not alone in terms of press freedom organizations that do measure economic factors,” Karlekar said. “We don’t just look at actions of government in restricting media, but also societal actors and forces. We’re trying to measure not freedom from government, but freedom of press in general.”

That includes “focusing in on economic issues and how it might affect [press freedom],” she explained. Such issues might include the editorial impact of media ownership and pressures caused by bribery, advertising, and journalists’ fear of losing their job, she said.

“Pressures can come from any type of source, even from inside the [journalistic] community, [such as] pressures on journalists to self-censor.”

The report took particular notice of the economic pressures faced by Israel’s major papers with the 2007 entry into the media market of the free, right-leaning daily Israel Hayom.

“The major newspapers are privately owned, and some freely criticize government policies and aggressively pursue cases of official corruption,” the report noted. “However, the popularity of the free newspaper Israel Hayom, which has captured about 40 percent of the market and is now the largest-circulation daily, has placed financial pressure on other mainstream papers, as its business model has forced them to slash advertising rates, thus threatening their sustainability.

“Israel Hayom is owned and subsidized by Sheldon Adelson, a prominent American businessman who is openly aligned with Netanyahu and the conservative Likud Party,” the report adds.

It blames Israel Hayom for helping to drive the daily Maariv nearly to insolvency. Maariv “was eventually sold in October 2012 to Shlomo Ben-Zvi, the owner of a smaller daily, Makor Rishon. The anticipated merger of the two outlets will increase ownership concentration and leave the market more politically polarized, with two left-wing and two right-wing daily newspapers representing the major print media.”

Asked if two major papers on each side of the political aisle, coupled with a variety of popular news sites, didn’t constitute media “diversity” in a country of 8 million citizens, Karlekar acknowledged “Israel’s [media] is very diverse. Our main concerns are with censorship rules, restrictions on journalists’ travel to other countries, and limits because of the security situation.”

The report continues, as in past years, to cite those factors in its assessment of Israeli press freedom.

“Due to Israel’s unresolved conflicts with Palestinian groups and neighboring countries, media outlets are subject to military censorship and journalists can face travel restrictions,” it notes. “Under a 1996 Censorship Agreement between the media and the military, the censor has the power — on the grounds of national security — to penalize, shut down, or halt the printing of a newspaper.”

However, the report also noted that, “in practice, the censor’s role is quite limited and subject to strict judicial oversight. Journalists often evade restrictions by leaking a story to a foreign outlet and then republishing it.

“However, Israeli security authorities have begun to combat leaks to foreign media by issuing gag orders that forbid quotations of foreign sources about the issue at hand. Digital media have added to the challenge of enforcing the 1996 agreement, but in May 2012 the military censor announced a new surveillance tool aimed at tracking textual and visual information online, especially on social networks.”

The report surveyed 197 countries, of which only 63, or 32%, were deemed “free.” Another 70, or 36%, were ranked “partly free,” and 64, or 32% were “not free.” The division of the world in population terms is less positive. Fully 3 billion people, or 43% of the world’s population, live in states whose media is “not free,” according to Freedom House. Just 14% of the world’s population, or roughly 980 million, live in countries listed under “free.”

While Israel’s ranking fell in the latest report, it continues to rank far above other states in the region, which is the most repressive in the world in terms of press freedom.

The West Bank and Gaza Strip — where journalists are routinely harassed and jailed by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and where travel is often restricted by Israel — are ranked 187th out of 197. Iran ranks almost at the very bottom of the press freedom index, at 192. Syria, which has seen a series of journalist deaths in the country’s ongoing civil war, ranks 189th.

The next-highest regional state after Israel, at 93rd on the list, is Mauritania, followed by Tunisia (at 111), Lebanon (115), Turkey (125, due to the highest number of incarcerated journalists in the world), Kuwait (129), Libya (130), Algeria (134), Egypt (141), Jordan (145), Morocco (152), Iraq (154), Qatar (155), Oman (161), the UAE (166), Yemen (173), Sudan (175), Saudi Arabia (184), and Bahrain (188).

Russia ranks dismally on the list as well, at 176th, behind many of the world’s most repressive dictatorships, due to ongoing dangers and violence directed at journalists. China ranks 179th, with a repressive regime that has jailed journalists and bloggers and keeps a tight lid on free expression.