The Israeli Media

It's vibrant. It's aggressive. It's in the Middle East.

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Israelis will often remark that there's rarely a dull moment in the national life of their small country. Indeed, they live in a state whose existence has always seemed precarious--a predicament which has turned Israelis into avid news consumers. More than three-fourths of the population read a newspaper at least once a week.   

Press Freedom Sans The First Amendment

It's this ravenous appetite for current events that has helped give rise to a vibrant and particularly aggressive media. On a daily basis, whether on television, radio or in newspapers, politicians and government officials are taken to task for their public stances and policies. Journalists at rival news organization face intense competition to come up with exclusives. Even the word "scoop" has been imported to vernacular Hebrew.

The country's dynamic media is even more of a surprise when one considers that Israel lacks any legal parallel to the U.S. First Amendment, which institutionalized the notion of a free press as one of the America's democratic bulwarks. In fact, Israel lacks any legal groundwork ensuring a press unfettered by government intervention. The freedoms enjoyed by Israel's newspapers hinge on informal understandings worked out between the government and the editors of the country's largest dailies.

israeli headlinesIronically, most of the laws on the books about the news media have been adopted to limit press freedom rather than protect it. The Press Ordinance of 1933, adopted by the British, requires all news organizations to register with the Interior Ministry. Under the law, licenses for news outlets could be revoked for endangering public order. The State Security Ordinance, an emergency regulation in place since the foundation of Israel, lays the groundwork for the country's military censor--a body which has the power to snip news content deemed to threaten Israel's security, "the well being of the public, or the public order."

Press Restrictions

In a country that has lived in a constant state of conflict with its neighbors, the desire to enforce military censorship is not unusual. Israeli journalists have been known to pass their information to foreign journalists, who aren't as dependent on keeping good relations with the censorship department. A useful example of the type of information subject to censorship can be taken from coverage of an enemy missile attack on Israeli cities. The military allows electronic media to inform their listeners of the general location of the strike. But, reporters are prohibited from naming the specific spot of the missile impact--even if it is the Mediterranean Sea--because it could provide vital information to enemy militaries.

Despite the limits, Israel's press is generally appreciated for the role it plays as a vigorous government watchdog. In 1997, a public television news reporter blocked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's appointment of a little-known lawyer as attorney general, alleging it was part of a political deal with his coalition partners. In the 2003 election campaign, the attorney general came under a storm of criticism when a state prosecutor interrogated a reporter about his sources for a controversial story about a campaign finance investigation against the prime minister.

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Joshua Mitnick is a freelance journalist living in Israel. His articles have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, The Toronto Star, The Newark Star Ledger, and The Washington Times.