Media watchdog downgrades Israeli press to ‘partly free’
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Media watchdog downgrades Israeli press to ‘partly free’

Freedom House cites as reasons for decline the detrimental influence of pro-Netanyahu tabloid Israel Hayom, expansion of paid content

Foreign journalists cover clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in 2000. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Foreign journalists cover clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in 2000. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Israel’s press has been downgraded to “partly free” by a Washington think tank in its annual report, which cited the “growing impact” of the free-of-cost tabloid Israel Hayom, a right-wing newspaper widely considered to be a mouthpiece for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as an increase in unmarked advertising.

The Freedom House ranking, released Wednesday, gives Israel 32 points on a 100-point scale — where a higher number represents more restrictions on press freedom — just above Italy, at 31 points, and four points above France and Spain, which both scored 28.

In 2015, Israel scored 30, which is the maximum number of points a country can have while retaining the “free” status.

The report cited the increasing negative influence of Israel Hayom, a daily tabloid distributed for free on busy streets and public transportation. The paper, which Freedom House estimates has cornered 40 percent of the Hebrew news market, is backed by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

US billionaire businessman Sheldon Adelson (L) meets with Benjamin Netanyahu during a ceremony at the Congress Hall in Jerusalem, 12 August 2007. (Flash90)
US billionaire businessman Sheldon Adelson (L) meets with Benjamin Netanyahu during a ceremony at the Congress Hall in Jerusalem, 12 August 2007. (Flash90)

In February, during a Supreme Court hearing, the casino magnate’s attorney Avigdor Klagsbald said for the first time that the newspaper was owned by an Adelson relative.

“The financial viability of private print and broadcast outlets remained a concern in 2015, especially given the growing market share of the free paper Israel Hayom, the country’s leading print outlet. It is owned and subsidized by American businessman Sheldon Adelson and strongly supports Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” the report said.

The Israel Hayom business model, said the report, has forced other media outlets to “slash advertising rates, thus threatening their sustainability.”

Another “source of concern” for free press in Israel was the growing use of unmarked “native advertising,” which paid advertisements disguised as news content.

The report said that unmarked native advertising has become the main source of revenue of major media outlets in Israel, including the most popular news site, Ynet.

The think tank’s report also cited Netanyahu’s decision to serve as communications minister following national elections in March as a detrimental development to Israel’s free press.

The move, the report said, gives the prime minister “control over the regulation of various segments of the market.”

The report said that despite the downgrade, Israel still “enjoys a lively, pluralistic media environment in which press freedom is generally respected.”

“However,” continued the report, “due to ongoing conflicts with Palestinian groups and neighboring countries, media outlets are subject to military censorship and gag orders, and journalists often face travel restrictions.”

IDF soldiers interrupt the live broadcast of Palestinian journalist Sara Al-Azra, December 14, 2015. (Screenshot from YouTube)
IDF soldiers interrupt the live broadcast of Palestinian journalist Sara Al-Azra, December 14, 2015. (Screenshot from YouTube)

Israel is still ranked the most free of any other country in the Middle East, followed by Tunisia, Lebanon and Kuwait. Syria was ranked the least free within the region, followed by Iran as the second-least free.

Global press freedom fell to its lowest point in 12 years in 2015, the report found, with only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoying free press.

The report found two factors for the decline in press freedom: “heightened partisanship and polarization in a country’s media environment, and the degree of extralegal intimidation and physical violence faced by journalists.”

“These problems were most acute in the Middle East,” the report said.

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