The end of Israeli journalism! Or not.
Updated: Jan 29
A first-time Israeli legislator has proposed a law to ban publication of secret recordings without the consent of both parties.
That means the tragic demise of Israeli journalism. Reporters will no longer be able to do their jobs. Officials will be free to pocket tax funds, take bribes, even rub out their opponents, and no one will stop them. The mind boggles.
I get in trouble for recommendations like this but, people: Chill.
Here’s the problem: The new lawmaker is from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, the anchor of a government called the most extreme in Israel’s history. Everything its representatives say sets off predictions of the apocalypse, the end of the Jewish state, destruction of the Temple (oh, wait, the Temple was destroyed 2,000 years ago).
There are two issues here: the proposed law itself, and the overreaction to that and everything else the government does. But it’s just not going to be as bad as it looks.
The legislator, ex-journalist Boaz Bismuth, gave this headline to his proposal: “Putting an end to hidden recordings!” But it doesn’t. Here is the complete text of the Bismuth proposal, an amendment that would be inserted into an existing law. (Warning: You don’t need to fluff up your pillows, pour a fresh cup of coffee, or call your mother now because if you read the whole thing, it might get too late for her):
“The publication of a recording of a person pertaining to what he considers sensitive information without his permission (is forbidden).”
That’s it. The whole horrible thing. In practical terms, it doesn’t apply strictly to journalists, and it doesn’t ban anyone from making secret recordings—it only bans them from broadcasting, printing, or otherwise making the recordings public.
It concerns mostly those gotcha TV investigations where we see video of someone’s floor from a hidden camera while the unsuspecting subject spills the beans about how his supermarket sells expired meat, or how the mayor cuts corners for his favorite contractor.
One reporter complained that Bismuth is trying to censor all journalists. Another wailed that Bismuth doesn’t understand how journalists work.
The way the parliamentary process works is, the proposal has to pass three votes and at least one committee. It won’t emerge unscathed. Reporters should know that.
In fact, according to the law even as it stands now, you could still make the recording, tell your audience that you have it, even paraphrase what’s in it. If the subject challenges your veracity, you can counter-challenge them to agree to publication.
Or you could make up your very own fake secret recording, tell your audience it proves that the defense minister is selling tanks to Iran, and when someone responds, “Oh yeah? So play the recording,” you reply, “Sorry, the Bismuth law forbids me from doing that.”
So the critics of the little law aren’t the only ones who can go off the deep end. So can I. The difference is—they’re serious.
That touches on the deterioration of journalism in recent years, not only in Israel. Media that used to be trusted are today accepted only by their niche audiences. Some Israeli newspapers play for the Left, others for the Right. TV news channels are denounced as pro-Right or pro-Left by viewers who believe that interviewing or quoting someone from the other camp means a channel is biased. (Getting both sides is a basic tenet of journalism, or it used to be.)
It’s part of the antisocial media revolution, where many people want to watch or read only what they already believe. The government targets reporters and news outlets (except for their own, like an entire Israeli TV news channel) as representatives of the hated “Leftist elite.” Bismuth’s boss, Netanyahu, is especially skilled at that. Who can forget his whipping up anti-news media frenzy during the 1999 election campaign by getting his crowd to chant, “They are afraid! They are afraid!”
So it’s understandable that journalists and opposition lawmakers would take this challenge seriously, fearing that it’s just the beginning of a cascade of restrictions that will one day, sooner than later, turn their outlets into Pravda.
That’s where the rest of us need to take a beat. Full disclosure—I’m a journalist with 60 years’ experience (I started really young). I’m also an Israeli, an Orthodox Jew, a husband, father, and grandfather. I have been called on to change the hats on my head many times. Here I’m an old-fashioned dispassionate journalist.
So when I say “chill,” I’m not referring to the involved parties. That includes Bismuth and his boss, who are in the business of firing up their base.
It includes Israelis who believe that the latest Netanyahu government is the worst of his six. The huge outpouring of citizen demonstrations, more than 100,000 on successive Saturday nights, is key to forcing the government to dial back on its most extreme plans.
And they are doing just that. The “cascade of edicts” has stopped, at least for now, after the removal of environmental taxes on disposable plates.
The Diaspora Affairs minister is backtracking on changing the Law of Return, which grants Israeli citizenship to any Jew who wants it. There are preliminary whispers of moderating the draconian judicial “reform” plan put out by Netanyahu henchman Justice Minister Yariv Levin.
Despite threats to strip its power, the Supreme Court ruled 11 to 1 that a minister convicted (again) of corruption must be removed from the Cabinet, and Netanyahu, the relentless critic of the judicial system and the judges themselves, complied.
The defense minister ordered the uprooting of an illegal settlement outpost, over the screams and threats of the most extreme members of the government.
This isn’t over. Both sides have plenty of ammunition left. They will do battle—most of it probably peaceful—until either one side wins or, more likely, compromises are reached that satisfy no one but allow for uneasy coexistence.
So for those watching from outside, this is the time to take a step back, take a deep breath, and, well, chill.