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Welcome, North Korea

What is happening in the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset?

A bill undermining the bedrock of any Democratic society, the sacrosanct freedom of speech, was put forth by Eitan Cabel of the Labor Party, to limit the distribution of free newspapers.

And it passed.

True, formally the bill still has two more readings, plus a host of other hurdles, to become law. I don’t think it will survive. But still. The principle of it!

Yisrael [Israel] Hayom is a daily newspaper that is distributed free (think Westword). It is a mouthpiece for the Likud party, specifically, a newspaper with an agenda to promote Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It is funded by a foreigner, Sheldon Adelson, to promote his right wing political ideology.

His mission has succeeded. Yisrael Hayom is extremely popular. Partly, that’s because it’s free, although there are so many free weekly publications in Israel — especially available before Shabbat — that this is probably not the sole reason for its success. Bottom line: Yisrael Hayom has had an influence in shaping the Israeli street. Its weekday readership exposure is 39%.

But the point of a free newspaper is not whether it’s any good. There are good newspapers and bad newspapers. The point is, they are out there.

Believe me, I understand the frustration. There are other Israeli newspapers working hard to produce news by Israelis for Israelis, and basically a foreigner is lining the pockets of a newspaper he created for the sole purpose of promoting his agenda in another country. It is not bound to any interest other than its financier’s, Sheldon Adelson.

It is an issue that, by all means, should be tackled and resolved. A conversation about free market principles and the free press principle should be refined. But not by this flawed disgrace of a bill.

MK Yuval Steinitz said something along the lines of “Now North Korea and Iran can come to Israel, to Eitan Cabel, to learn how to shut down newspapers.”

To their credit, Zahava Galon, head of Meretz, as well as Moshe Feiglin — whom Yisrael Hayom has excoriated most — voted against this bill, contrary to their usual political commitments, in an effort to preserve the hallmark of any free society: freedom of speech.

This should be a private sector issue.

Hate Yisrael Hayom, love Yisrael Hayom, the issue is not about this newspaper per se. It’s about the cornerstone of a democracy. To infringe on freedom of the press is downright dangerous.

Once this pandora’s box is opened, today it is a right wing paper that Israel’s leftists take issue with. Tomorrow it boomerangs and their newspaper might be in danger of shutting down. Before you know it, a society is changing and it’s no longer democratic.

I have to say, it boggles the mind, such a shameful bill coming from a camp that constantly and smugly lauds itself for being enlightened and liberal. This is a bill that should have reflected a consensus rather than becoming partisan. I really take my hat off to MK’s Feiglin and Galon.

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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