Defending liberty around the world, especially that of the press, is an important function of Freedom House. It has done admirable service promoting democracy and pointing out the failures and injustices in a world that is still is dominated by dictatorships. But like many human rights advocacy groups it has a blind spot when it comes to the state of Israel.
Though Israel has one of the most vibrant and free press cultures in the entire world, Freedom House has downgraded its ranking in the group’s annual report on freedom of the press that will be released tomorrow from “free” to “partly free.”
How is that possible? Has Israel’s government sought to suppress criticism? Has it shut down outlets that disagreed with Prime Minister Netanyahu? Are dissenting voices no longer heard on its television or radio stations?
No, none of those things have happened. Israel, which has far more active newspapers per capita than most democracies, remains a country where critics of the government and of the country, in general, have no trouble in being heard on radio and television or in finding space in general circulation publications. Indeed, it is often far more difficult to find those who back Israel’s government or its current prime minister than it is to encounter his opponents in the media. In that respect, the Israeli press tilts even further to the left than that in the United States.
Why possible reason then can there be for downgrading Israel’s ranking? The answer is simple. The group considers “the growing impact of Israel Hayom” to be a problem. According to Freedom House, that newspaper’s “owner-subsidized business model endangered the stability of other media outlets.”
What are they talking about?
Israel Hayom happens to be Israel’s largest circulation newspaper. Newspapers are not always profitable businesses. But its owner, American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, is acting like the press barons of an earlier era in the United States when newspapers were mission-oriented rather than profit machines to be milked. He is determined to provide an alternative to most of the mainstream Israeli media that are as left wing as its American counterparts.
In that sense, Israel Hayom is playing much the same role in the Jewish state as Fox News has done in the U.S. Like Rupert Murdoch and Rogers Ailes, who found an underserved niche of the American media market that just happened to consist of about half of the American people, the same is true of Adelson’s efforts in Israel. In a country that has overwhelming rejected the politics of the left in three consecutive elections has few media outlets that are not at odds with the views of the majority of voters. Israel Hayom filled that void and, not unsurprisingly, has been rewarded with a greater readership than those that tilt to the left.
Equally unsurprisingly, the Israeli left has greeted the success of a newspaper that tilts to the right with dismay. But rather than merely fulminating about Israel Hayom’s popularity or declaring that they will have nothing to do with it — as Fox News’ liberal detractors have done — Israeli liberals have sought to take action to silence their rival. Like Freedom House, they seemed to think there was something unfair about a conservative paper that favored Prime Minister Netanyahu getting more readers than those dominated by the left. In the last Knesset, the left-wing parties like Labor and its allies promoted legislation that would effectively ban free circulation papers like Israel Hayom.
Had they succeeded, Freedom House and other media monitors would have had good reason to question Israeli press freedom since the bill targeting Israel Hayom would have amounted to a legislative bill of attainder that would have silenced one of the few mainstream alternatives to left-wing political orthodoxy. But fortunately, the effort failed and, after Netanyahu’s third consecutive election victory and the formation of a right-wing majority government, this genuine threat to press freedom is no longer on the table.
Yet ironically, it is that victory for freedom of the press that Freedom House laments.
This is not the first time Freedom House has sought to downgrade Israel. It did the same thing while also mentioning complaints about Israel Hayom in 2013. But after returning Israel to its deserved place as “free,” the group has once again downgraded the Jewish state to “partly free” in 2016.
Three years ago in denouncing the attack on Israeli freedom by a group that is supposed to be its advocate, I wrote the following:
The focus of any attempt to defend freedom of the press ought to be on the efforts of governments throughout the globe to repress dissent and to threaten and imprison journalists, not to defend the hegemony of liberals in democracies. Israel remains a bulwark of liberty in a region where despotism is the rule, including a nation like Egypt which recently replaced an authoritarian dictator with a theocratic tyranny. Freedom House ought to be ashamed of tarnishing its impressive brand in this manner. They need to retract the attack on Israel Hayom and restore the Jewish state’s rating to “free.”
The same demand applies to their current smear of Israel but even more so. One needn’t be a fan of Netanyahu or Adelson to understand the insidious nature of this argument. To openly support efforts to suppress a publication that has provided much-needed diversity to the Israeli press is a betrayal of Freedom House’s mandate. To attack Israel again in this manner demonstrates that, as with so many other groups that pose as defenders of liberty, freedom in the Jewish state or the right of its people to defend themselves is not something they care much about.