Israeli press back to being ‘free,’ watchdog says

Israeli press back to being ‘free,’ watchdog says

After 2013 demotion, new report marks Israel as only Mideast country with no major media restrictions; Iran one of world’s 8 worst

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Illustrative: Reporters and photographers during a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem in 2011. (photo credit: Mark Israel Sellem/Flash90)
Illustrative: Reporters and photographers during a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem in 2011. (photo credit: Mark Israel Sellem/Flash90)

Israel’s press is “free,” albeit just barely, a Washington think tank said in an annual report released Thursday, reversing an embarrassing downgrade from a year before.

The annual Freedom of the Press report by Freedom House gave Israel the only “free” designation in the Middle East, saying the country upheld media freedoms, though challenges remained.

The Freedom House ranking places Israel with 30 points out of a 100 point scale — where a higher number represents more restrictions on press freedom — a pot just below Papua New Guinea, at 29 points, and Spain and Suriname with 28.

A score of 30 is the maximum a country can have while retaining the “free” status.

With regard to Israel, “Several challenges to media freedom remain, including military censorship and the use of gag orders to restrict coverage, curbs on journalists’ freedom of movement, political interference at the public broadcaster,” the report said.

In addition, the report also criticized the free Israel Hayom daily, which is “openly aligned with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” for damaging the “sustainability of the print sector.”

While media in the West Bank and Gaza remain “not free,” the report boosted the ranking of these areas from 84 to 82.

Last year, the Israeli ranking jumped to 31, bumping it from “free” to “partly free.” The demotion was seen as a blow to a country that prides itself on being one of the few places in the Middle East to offer unfettered freedoms.

Meanwhile, while Turkey enjoyed the status of “partly free” up until last year, under Erdogan’s leadership and attempts to restrict internet access, the country was deemed “not free” in the 2014 report.

Israel’s new ranking was a rare upgrade in a year that saw the overall global trend take the largest dive in a decade, with many countries — notably Egypt, Libya, Jordan, and Turkey — showing significant decline in their upholding of press freedom.

Only 14% of countries were considered “free” in 2013, with only 1 in 7 people worldwide living in a country that maintains freedom of the press, the report said.

“We see declines in media freedom on a global level, driven by governments’ efforts to control the message and punish the messenger,” said Karin Karlekar, project director of the report, in a statement. “In every region of the world last year, we found both governments and private actors attacking reporters, blocking their physical access to newsworthy events, censoring content, and ordering politically motivated firings of journalists.”

Iran was listed as one of the eight worst countries with regard to its media restrictions, alongside North Korea, Belarus, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

“In these states, independent media are either nonexistent or barely able to operate, the press acts as a mouthpiece for the regime, citizens’ access to unbiased information is severely limited, and dissent is crushed through imprisonment, torture, and other forms of repression,” the report said.

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