Knesset Bill Would Criminalize Speech
Among a raft of new authoritarian bills and legislation proposed or passed by the current Knesset is one that will essentially criminalize speech. Under a proposed new libel law, plaintiffs would no long even have to prove damages to win tens of thousands from defendants. Penalties in some categories will be increased six times and the highest damage award will rise to $500,000.
The bill, which handily passed it’s first reading, would harm all Israeli, but hit bloggers especially hard (Hebrew). I know this from my own personal experience since Rachel Neuwirth did sue me unsuccessfully and Aussie Dave and David Yerushalmi threatened to do so, but never followed through with their threats. There are few NGOs prepared to defend bloggers in such circumstances and how many of us have personal means to do so? A Los Angeles law firm took my case pro bono and spent four years defending me, and the plaintiff is still appealing her loss! If you don’t have a friend who’s a senior partner in a major law firm where do you stand?
There are even fewer such resources for Israeli bloggers. Plus the obstacles in the path of their reporting are even higher than those facing me. They have gag orders and censorship. They have powerful oligarchs with deep pockets and lawyers willing to use the law for the purpose of harassment. They have a draconian security establishment which is a law unto itself. They face a quiescent judicial system designed to favor corporate and state interests at the expense of the individual.
Bloggers in Israel are the canaries in the coal mine of Israeli democracy. The first blogger thrown in prison or bankrupted by such court action under this law will close down a curtain of freedom of the press in the country.
Itzik Sporta of HaOketz said it well when he derided the Knesset for wasting it’s time addressing “problems” that don’t exist rather than ones raised by the social justice movement which cry out for resolution. Israel has the fifth greatest income disparity between rich and poor among OCED nations. One quarter of Israelis live in poverty. Among children, the number is closer to half. There are huge reservoirs of hate and injustice among ethnic groups. Not to mention serious conflicts with its neighbors to be resolved. Instead they’re fixated on helping celebrities, politicians, and oligarchs getting their pound of flesh from the hard working journalists of their country, who labor on behalf of the common person, giving them enough information to make sense out of the mess their country is in.
We might want to start things off after this monstrosity is passed by bringing the first prosecution against the law itself for libeling free speech and press in Israel. One wag quoted in The Marker article says he’s going to exploit the new racist law declaring Israel a Jewish state by suing every Israeli Palestinian who denies it. Then he plans to take the $75,000 he wins from Israeli Palestinian social satitist Sayed Kashua (no doubt a personal friend, I hope) and hire the highest priced psychiatrist he can find to tell the world, he and his country are not insane.
Whether this schandeh of a bill ever passes or not, the damage is done. Merely proposing it has set loose the jackals who circle round Israeli democracy seeking to pick off the weak and vulnerable. First the bloggers, then the journalists, then the NGOs. By the time they come for the average citizen it will already be too late, as Pastor Niemoller so famously wrote. Even Bibi’s own mouthpiece, Yisrael HaYom, warns of the dangers of the law; which is quite ironic since the competition, once it can no longer report anything interesting, will fold and leave the field to Bibiton. The triumph of authoritarianism in Israeli life will only benefit Bibi’s media properties, which will not be challenged under these new measures.
If I were more selfish I’d see this development as a boon to someone like me not subject to Israeli law. After all, when Israel’s democracy dies there only be greater need for blogs like mine. But I’d much rather see Israeli democracy and free speech triumph. Until it does, I will continue doing what I do. And if things turn worse, Israelis who value a free press and who deride secrecy and government impunity may see this blog as their resource and in a way, their insurance policy. I will do whatever I can to protect Israeli sources and bloggers from their work being criminalized. I hope it doesn’t come to Israeli bloggers turning their websites into samizdat, underground knowledge whose sources and web servers must be hidden from the prying eyes of the intelligence agents and wrongdoers who seek to root out the good guys.
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Kenneth Clarke QC MP has proposed reforms to the UK’s defamation laws that would make “truth” a complete defence and which would limit awards to provable damages. There is no serious opposition to this, except from the lawyers.
But, as I understand it, “I spoke truth” will continue to be a valid defence even under the revised law. So a blogger who writes things which are true, even if unflattering or inconvenient to the plaintiff, will still be in no danger of having to pay damages.
Can you believe that even Abe Foxman agrees?
Things must be getting really bad…
“When, however, laws are passed that stifle free expression, seek to undermine the independence of the judiciary and, in the name of defending a Jewish state, seek to undermine the rights of Arabs and other minorities, then the very democratic character of the state is being eroded,” wrote Foxman.