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Legislators are slated today to consider in a preliminary reading a bill to dramatically increase compensation in defamation suits, and to enable courts to censor defamatory publication.

The bill is sponsored by Economic Affairs Committee chairman Gilad Erdan (Likud), and prominent MKs from across the board have signed on, making it likely to pass. Signatories include coalition chairman Yoel Hasson (Kadima), Shas whip Yaakov Margi, Finance Committee chairman-designate Avishai Braverman (Labor), National Religious Party leader Zevulun Orlev, House Committee chairman David Tal (Kadima), and Yisrael Beiteinu whip Robert Ilatov.

Under existing law, defamation claimants can be compensated NIS 50,000 without proving damage suffered, and NIS 100,000 when malice is established. The bill seeks to increase the amount to NIS 150,000 in cases of the first sort, and to NIS 450,000 in cases of malicious intent.

Damages in such high amounts might threaten the existence of some media outlets, and deter them from conducting investigative journalism.

Currently, the courts refrain almost entirely from pre-publication censorship. If the bill becomes law, courts would be able to issue such injunctions on a long list of pretexts, among them: the damage the publisher will suffer is greater than the public interest; lack of public interest; publication might demean and humiliate; publication might inflict heavy damage on the offended party; and the publisher lacks sufficient evidence.

'Draconian means'

This could translate into a situation where almost every investigative journalism report has to pass a tough court hearing.

MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) says the bill "places draconian means in the hands of anyone who wishes to undermine freedom of the press."

MKs should accept that public figures come under criticism at times, and not abuse their power as legislators to limit a free press.