Bills to Increase Libel Penalties Will Deter Investigative Journalism, Says NGO

Association for Civil Rights in Israel cautions that if passed, bills will have dramatic ramifications for Israel media, substantially reducing number of investigative reports due to fears of libel suits.

Tomorrow the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee is to discuss two controversial bills that will significantly stiffen the sentence for the media and ordinary citizens' violation of libel laws. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel cautions that if passed, the bills will have dramatic ramifications for the media in Israel and will substantially reduce the number of investigative reports due to fears of libel suits.

The first bill, proposed by Likud MK Yariv Levin, Yisrael Beiteinu MK Anastassia Michaeli and Kadima MK Israel Hasson, calls for increasing compensation from NIS 50,000, without the complainant even being required to prove that damage was caused him, to NIS 300,000. The other bill, proposed by Kadima MK Meir Sheetrit, will increase compensation to NIS 500,000. In addition, media outlets will be required to pay NIS 1.5 million in compensation to citizens whose full reaction was not published as part of the report that was deemed libelous. The bills already garnered the Knesset's backing in a preliminary reading, and the discussion tomorrow is expected to prepare them for a first reading. ACRI attorney Avner Pinchuk wrote to the committee members stating that "there is no factual basis for the claim that there has been a significant increase in the incidence of libel, and that those who are harmed do not receive adequate compensation."

Avner Pinchuk - Nir Keidar
Nir Keidar

In a reasoned document to be submitted to the Knesset members tomorrow, ACRI's representative warns that the new compensation limit will also deter media editorial boards from publishing well-founded investigations and true reports for fear of being sued and not having adequate footing to present in court. In their assessment, the much steeper compensation will spur a wave of thuggish libel suits filed by people seeking to prevent investigative reports or true and worthy reports on crimes and corruption committed by them.

Before the vote on the bills last March, MK Levin explained that the goal of the law is to increase the options available to the courts to grant to the victims of false reports.

"In the existing reality, the compensation sums set by law are low," he said. "The litigation process is long. On one hand, the result is an inability of the affected party to receive fair compensation within a reasonable period for the damage caused him and on the other hand, insufficient incentive and deterrence that would result in reports being thoroughly checked and as accurate and truthful as possible. In no way is the objective to harm the media or in somehow limit their actions."

Sheetrit explained that "given the fact that cases of libel have increased, there is a need to stiffen the punishment in order to deter people from libeling or slandering others, and to protect the dignity of people about whom reports are written."

In their arguments against the bill, ACRI cited as an example the behavior of attorney Israel Perry, who was convicted in 2008 of fraud and stealing from clients of the "German pension" plan. Perry, they said, in the years prior to his conviction, waged a series of legal battles against "anyone who dared to publicize charges regarding the case."

In one instance, he filed a slander suit against Joseph Gura, an elderly Holocaust survivor who interrupted Perry's testimony in court with shouts of "liar and swindler." "All the parties sued by Perry had to spend a lot of money on their defense in the suits and faced the risk of paying rather hefty compensation. Only many years later, after he was convicted, was it possible to determine that Perry used unfounded libel suits to silence the criticisms leveled at him," states the document to be presented to the Knesset members tomorrow.

But a sharp rise in compensation sums is also likely to hurt the average citizen, who will have difficulty handling slander suits of this scale. In Israel, quite a few private individuals, and not media outlets, had to contend with libel suits intended to frighten them away. ACRI cites the case of an employer who filed a libel suit against a group of waiters who fought him because he denied them the right to form a union, and they in turn voiced "minor" objections to him in a bulletin they circulated.

ACRI representatives wonder how these people will cope if the compensation sum amounts to half a million shekels. "It is hard to imagine that the Knesset members will dispossess us, the citizens, of the right to issue good and not-so-good reports on their actions and the actions of powerful and influential entities, and leave us with 'a back-rubbing media' with airy reports and public discourse on 'Big Brother and the Models," stated the letter to the Knesset committee.