Israel up in press freedom index, but PM rapped for treating media as ‘enemies’

Israel ranked 91 out of 180 nations in anual report that also criticizes army censorship, treatment of Palestinian journalists

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Microphones and video cameras of Israeli media outlets set up for a press conference. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Microphones and video cameras of Israeli media outlets set up for a press conference. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel moved up 10 spots in the annual press freedom report by Reporters Without Borders published Wednesday, ranking 91st out of 180 countries, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was singled out for treating journalists like “enemies.”

“The Israeli media are free to be outspoken, which is rare in the Middle East,” the report said. However, it noted several problematic areas.

The report targeted Netanyahu for the “increasingly visible pressure” he has put on the media.

“Although Israel (91st) is often described as ‘the Middle East’s only democracy and has risen a few places in the 2017 Index, Netanyahu has tried in recent months to tame the Israel Broadcasting Authority because he thinks its programming is out of control. He is said to be ‘obsessed with the media and journalists, regarding them as his enemies,'” the report said.

Netanyahu has been embroiled in an ongoing dispute over attempts to reform the public broadcasting system and set up a new public authority in its place. The issue has still not been resolved and has brought the governing coalition to the brink of disintegration.

Netanyahu has also become involved in personal disputes with prominent journalists, who he accuses of persecuting him and his family.

And the prime minister is being investigated by police for an alleged quid pro quo deal with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes.

Netanyahu and Mozes held several face-to-face conversations in 2014 on an alleged deal under which Yedioth would scale back its critical coverage of the prime minister in return for Netanyahu ensuring legislation that would reduce the impact of Yedioth’s competitor, Sheldon Adelson’s pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom free daily.

During much of this period Netanyahu was also Israel’s communications minister. He denies any wrongdoing.

The report also criticized the Israeli military.

“Despite the existence of independent media, journalists are subject to ‘military censorship,'” it said, adding that “the Israel Defense Forces often violate the rights of Palestinian journalists and journalists of other nations, especially when they are covering demonstrations.”

Palestinian journalist Omar Nazzal, arrested by Israeli security forces on April 23, 2016 on suspicion of terror activity and released in February. (Screenshot/Addameer on YouTube)
Palestinian journalist Omar Nazzal, arrested by Israeli security forces on April 23, 2016 on suspicion of terror activity and released in February. (Screenshot/Addameer on YouTube)

“Under Israel’s system of administrative detention, Palestinian journalists can be held indefinitely without trial, without formal charge, and without notifying a lawyer.”

“They are often accused of inciting violence, cooperating with terrorist organizations, or otherwise posing a threat to Israel’s security.”

The survey, conducted annually, ranked the media in Israel in 2017 as less free than many countries in the former Soviet bloc, a host of African nations such as Namibia, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, Asian states such as Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan and South American countries like Peru.

Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark took the first four places for the freest press, while North Korea and Syria were among the worst states for press freedom, along with Eritrea and Turkmenistan.

The report noted that the index “reflects a world in which attacks on the media have become commonplace and strongmen are on the rise.”

“We have reached the age of post-truth, propaganda and suppression of freedoms – especially in democracies,” the report said. “In sickening statements, draconian laws, conflicts of interest, and even the use of physical violence, democratic governments are trampling on a freedom that should, in principle, be one of their leading performance indicators.”

The report warned of a “tipping point” for journalism, saying, “media freedom has never been so threatened.”

US President Donald Trump was also criticized.

Then Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally at the W.L. Zorn Arena November 1, 2016 in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)
Then Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally at the W.L. Zorn Arena November 1, 2016 in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

It said, “Donald Trump’s repeated diatribes against the Fourth Estate and its representatives – accusing them of being ‘among the most dishonest human beings on earth’ and of deliberately spreading ‘fake news’ — compromise a long US tradition of defending freedom of expression.”

In France, politicians were assailing “the lying media,” while attacks on media organizations, especially the BBC, were “the pillar” of the Brexit campaign lead by the UK Independence Party’s former leader Nigel Farage.

Reporters Without Borders Secretary General Christophe Deloire said: “The rate at which democracies are approaching the tipping point is alarming for all those who understand that, if media freedom is not secure, then none of the other freedoms can be guaranteed.”

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