After 84 Years, Israel Rescinds Government's Ability to Shut Down Newspapers

New law says Press Ordinance of 1933 caused 'serious harm' to freedom of expression and was out of touch with developments in media since them

An ultra-Orthodox man reads a newspaper, 2014
Eyal Toueg

The Knesset repealed on Monday the British Mandate-era legislation that had given Israel's Interior Ministry the authority to shut down newspapers.

The Press Ordinance, passed by the British Mandatory government in 1933, granted the ministry the authority to license the publication of newspapers – as well as to shutter them if the interior minister deemed that they could endanger public welfare.

The ordinance also provided specific criteria for newspaper editors, requiring that they be older than 25, have a high school matriculation certificate, and not have been convicted of a crime that resulted in a sentence of three months or longer in prison.

Information obtained by Haaretz through the Freedom of Information Law shows that over the past decade, the Interior Ministry invoked the Press Ordinance to prevent the publication of at least 62 newspapers, turning down more than 10 percent of the applicants for a license on grounds such as “lack of education,” the editor’s criminal record or technicalities in the application.

The new law approved by the Knesset states that Press Ordinance was being abolished “due to the serious harm that it causes to the constitutional rights of freedom of expression and freedom of occupation, as well as the fact that it is an archaic, Mandatory-era ordinance the permanent provisions of which are not tailored to developments that have occurred since its passage in the press sector in particular and in the communications sector in general.”

Just a day before the Press Ordinance was repealed, following an inquiry from Haaretz, the Interior Ministry withdrew its order to close a local newspaper in Eilat that had failed to receive a license from the ministry. The order, however, was issued in contradiction to the position of Interior Minister Arye Dery, who sought the cancelation of the ordinance.

The Press Ordinance passed amid strict censorship of newspapers in Palestine by the British Mandate government. The Knesset’s action on Monday followed the repeal a year ago of emergency legislation that had given the Interior Ministry the power to revoke a newspaper’s license “as he sees fit and without providing any reason.”

Reacting to the repeal of the Press Ordinance, Joint List lawmaker Dov Khenin, who submitted a private member’s bill on the subject alongside the Interior Ministry’s legislation, noted that he had submitted a similar bill just after he was elected to the Knesset in 2006. Khenin called the ordinance not only anti-democratic, but "a vestige of a foreign government that was in this country.” And he added: “It’s important that actually during this period, when there are attempts to hurt the media, this historic decision is being passed repealing the ordinance.”

Interior Minister Dery had the legislation introduced after the Association for Civil Rights in Israel filed a petition with the High Court of Justice on the matter. ACRI lawyer Dan Yakir, who filed the petition, said it took decades to convince the government and the Knesset that it was not appropriate to require the licensing of newspapers or to give the government the power to shut them down.

In 1953, Interior Minister Yisrael Rokach invoked the Press Ordinance to order the closure of Kol Ha’am and Al-Ittihad newspapers, which were harshly critical of the government. The closure was overturned by the High Court of Justice, which ruled that Rokach had not proved that the papers posed a certain danger to the public good.