Another Bad Israeli Law

The libel bill, which was approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, would have a dangerous chilling effect on criticism of IDF operations.

It seems as if the current cabinet and Knesset are vying with their predecessors to see who can propose the most anti-democratic legislation.

On Wednesday, the so-called “Governability Law,” which would raise the election threshold and make it harder for the opposition to submit no-confidence motions, passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset. And earlier this week, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a bill that would make it a tort to libel operational activity by the Israel Defense Forces.

According to the bill’s explanatory notes, the goal is to close a “legal loophole.” But in reality, there is no loophole in the libel law; the law simply makes a distinction between libeling an individual and libeling a group. When an individual is libeled, he can file a civil suit or even a private criminal complaint. But when a group is libeled, the law says there are no grounds for either a civil suit or a private criminal complaint. Instead, a criminal indictment can be filed, but only by the attorney general or with his consent.

The prohibition against libel was enacted to protect an individual’s good name and honor from published material that is liable to humiliate him; make him an object of hate, contempt or ridicule; or harm his job. The law restricts some people’s freedom of expression for the sake of protecting other people’s right to preserve their good name. But restricting the possibility of suing for libel against a group is justified: Creating a broad opening for such lawsuits might well result in severe limitations on people’s ability to express opinions or voice public criticism.

This particular bill would change the law only with regard to libel against operational activity by IDF soldiers. That would have a dangerous chilling effect on criticism of IDF operations. The libel law allows courts to grant compensation of up to NIS 50,000 even if the plaintiff can’t prove he suffered any harm. Even though the bill includes certain protections ‏(for instance, for material that is true and whose publication is in the public interest‏), nevertheless, if it is enacted, the threat of lawsuits will hover over any statement criticizing IDF operations.

The IDF ought to respond to allegations against its operational activity with real arguments and facts, not by threatening to file a libel suit against the author or publisher. And the attorney general, for his part, should strive to torpedo this bill