The Knesset on Wednesday passed an early version of a bill aimed at slowing circulation of a newspaper owned by U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson — a close associate and major advocate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
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In a first reading — and over Netanyahu’s objections — the Knesset passed the so-called Israel Hayom bill, named after the billionaire’s freebie daily. The measure, which passed 43-23, now goes to committee.
Israel Hayom, founded in 2007, has a reputation for being the prime minister’s mouthpiece — Netanyahu’s economics minister, Naftali Bennett, has said as much.
In Wednesday’s vote, members of the governing coalition were free to vote their conscience.
The bill puts MKs in a difficult situation, said one parliamentarian. “It’s clear to everyone that if we oppose the law we’ll get in trouble with Yedioth Ahronoth,” he said, referring to Israel’s largest daily. “And if we support it we’ll turn into enemies of Netanyahu and Israel Hayom.”
The bill would make it illegal to widely distribute a full-size newspaper free of charge. Such a publication could not remain free for more than six months.
“The goal of this law is to promote and strengthen print journalism in Israel and guarantee equal conditions for real and fair competition among newspapers,” the bill states.
From the Knesset podium, MK Eitan Cabel (Labor) accused Adelson of trying to corner the advertising market and destroy Israeli print journalism by charging rock-bottom prices for ads.
“Israel Hayom does not exist because of its success as a newspaper, but because of the hundreds of millions in gambling funds that are funneled to it from overseas. Does anyone in this room honestly think that this is how a model for a normal newspaper looks? That this is how fair competition looks?”
According to Cabel, an opposition MK, “I’m not trying to close Israel Hayom down. Rather, I’m trying to prevent the closure of the country’s other newspapers, the layoff of their workers and the [creation of] unity of thought throughout the country.”
As Cabel put it, “I’m not opposed to an ideological press. On the contrary — it nourishes public discourse. Israel Hayom is not ideological journalism .... It’s a cult of personality of the leader.”
Strategic Affairs and Intellligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, a close ally of Netanyahu, took issue with the bill.
“Eitan Cabel’s statements almost had me convinced. If a newspaper isn’t good, high-quality or acceptable to most of us, let’s shut it down,” Steinitz said.
“If your bill passes, people will come here from North Korea to learn how to shut a newspaper down ....You are paving the way and giving legitimacy to more bills for the closure of media outlets in Israel.”
MK Moshe Feiglin (Likud) also lambasted the bill, even though, as he put it, he has been a major victim of the paper’s venom.
“I am certainly a member of the group that has been attacked, and the reason for that is well known. I have a clear ideological disagreement with the prime minister. So what?” said Feiglin, a member of Likud’s right wing. Feiglin then mentioned newspapers on both sides of the political spectrum.
“I will fight to my last drop of blood so that you, Haaretz and Israel Hayom, will be able to express your opinions. Who are you,” he added, addressing his colleagues, “democrats or Bolsheviks?”