The Knesset passed on preliminary reading Wednesday a controversial bill that would force Israel’s most-read newspaper, the free daily Israel Hayom, to start charging its readers.
If it makes it through the second and third readings — which it is deemed most unlikely to do — the bill, which passed with 43 votes for and 23 against, will force each of the four most-read newspapers in the country to charge at least 70 percent of its lowest-priced competitor’s fee. This essentially guarantees that no publishers of the four top-selling newspapers would be able to distribute free copies.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to the bill’s passage, in a hurriedly arranged vote, by calling it “an embarrassment.” Jewish Home MK Moti Yogev said it marked “a dark day for democracy.”
The bill is sponsored by Labor MK Eitan Cabel who, in his address to the assembly before the vote, denied that law was meant to target Israel Hayom, known for its support of Netanyahu, which became the country’s most-read paper this year. Israel Hayom is handed out for free, often in the street to passersby or to motorists at intersections.
“I am not looking to close the paper [Israel Hayom] but rather to prevent the closure of the rest of the newspapers,” Cabel said. “The Israel Hayom paper will continue to be published after the law comes into effect and can even be sold for a symbolic price.”
The Hebrew-language paper is owned by American Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who has an estimated net worth of $37 billion, is a close supporter of Netanyahu, and is a noted contributor to the Republican Party, along with various pro-Israel and right-wing groups, as well as causes such as Birthright and Yad Vashem.
“Mr. Adelson might not be here with us, but his presence is felt in this assembly,” Cabel said. “Sheldon Edelson wants to be the undertaker of the newspaper industry, which is fighting for its life.”
Cabel also claimed that the paper’s pro-Netanyahu stance was effectively an undeclared donation to the prime minister’s publicity budget.
Critics have slammed the bill as trampling free enterprise, and said it was a politically motivated attempt to weaken or silence a media outlet supportive of Netanyahu.
Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud), who opposes the law, accused Cabel of an anti-democratic move.
“If the bill passes, then in North Korea and Iran they will come to Israel to learn how to close down media outlets,” he said.
Israel Hayom responded to the vote by saying that the Knesset was out of touch with what the Israeli public wants.
“We are not the ones who will lose out, but rather the Knesset that has again showed how cut off it is from public sentiment,” the paper told Channel 2. “The speech from the bill’s sponsor, MK Eitan Cabel, proved that this is not a ‘law to save the newspaper’ in Israel but a specific, personal, and vindictive law against one paper alone: Israel Hayom.”
The bill relates only to newspapers that are one of the four most-read in the country, are intended for general readership, and are distributed in most areas of the country. The law would be applied to new publications six months after they are first given out for free.