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.
Ironically, 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.”
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.
At the same time, the media often come under sharp criticism, much of which is the stuff of familiar complaints heard in the U.S. Many argue that Israeli journalists display a left-wing political bent. Others accuse it of sensationalizing of the news.
The country’s most independent news organizations are its newspapers. Unlike television and radio, newspapers operate without worrying of having to answer to government regulators. Three nationally circulated dailies vie for the public’s attention for general news. The top two papers in circulation, Yediot Aharonot and Ma’ariv, are tabloids whose use of banner headlines and color often make their appearance virtually indistinguishable from one another. The competition between the two is so intense that in the mid-1990s the publisher of Ma’ariv was convicted of wire tapping the telephone lines of the editors of the rival paper.
A distant third is Ha’aretz, a broadsheet newspaper which thrives on its reputation as the country’s equivalent of the New York Times. The fourth newspaper, Globes, is the country’s only business daily and is printed on orange paper to mimic Great Britain’s The Financial Times. The Itim news agency serves as a domestic equivalent of the Associated Press.
Radio news is entirely a government-sponsored affair. Two radio stations, Kol Yisrael (Israel Radio) and Galei Tzahal (Israel Army Radio), offer the Israeli public the only news outfits on the dial. On weekdays, radio listeners can get radio news updates every half hour. Before the drowsy-eyed can absorb the morning newspaper headlines, a parade of politicians, analysts, and officials are often spinning their own headlines on radio talk shows that start at 7 a.m. and run until 2 p.m.
So formidable is the news gathering operation of Israel Radio and Army Radio that none of the commercial radio stations that began operating in the mid-1990s chose to compete with them. The government radio stations are regulated by the Israel Broadcast Authority, whose board and executive director are made up of political appointees. The authority allows the government to exercise a good deal of oversight, and making it often the target of allegations of news manipulation by opposition parties in parliament.
Israel Television, the public television station, is subject to the same oversight as the radio. Television broadcasts began in the late 1960s, making it the youngest of the three major news media. And until the early 1990s, Israel Television was the only game in town, with its nightly broadcast of the “Mabat” television news program with Haim Yavin, Israel’s equivalent of Walter Conkrite.
In 1994, the first commercial television station began broadcasting, posing the first competition for the public television station. The second commercial station went on the air waves in 2002, ratcheting up the on-camera rivalry. Television news is slotted in prime time, and Channel 1 runs an hour and half dosage an evening. Round-table talk shows that feature free-for-all argument among leading politicians are also popular, such as Channel 1’s “Popolitika.”
But there’s more to come for Israeli news junkies: a 24-hour news channel a la Cable News Network.