Ministers approved a bill Sunday that will finally abolish the interior minister’s power to shut down an existing newspaper or deny a new one a license to operate if he believes it would endanger the public welfare.
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Since the Ministerial Committee for Legislation’s decision obligates the governing coalition to support the bill, it is now virtually certain to become law.
The existing Press Ordinance was enacted in 1933, when the British Mandate controlled what is now Israel, and imposed stringent political censorship on the press. Over the years, the Knesset has abolished some of the Mandate-era press restrictions, most recently last June, when it abolished a regulation allowing any of the Interior Ministry’s regional directors to deny a newspaper an operating license “as he sees fit, without giving any reason for the matter.”
Now, Interior Minister Arye Dery has decided that his ministry should be stripped of all power over the press. He made the decision several months ago, in response to a petition filed in the High Court of Justice by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
Under a draft bill circulated by Dery’s ministry last June, any suspicion that a media outlet was endangering national security or the public welfare would henceforth be dealt with by the Attorney General’s Office.
As Haaretz previously reported, the Interior Ministry has used its powers under the Press Ordinance to deny licenses to at least 62 new newspapers over the past decade – more than 10 percent of all applications submitted to the ministry during those years. Its reasons for denying the license ranged from technical problems with the way the application was filed to claims that the editor-in-chief “lacked education” or had a criminal record.
The current law lays out clear rules for acquiring a license to open a paper. For example, the editor-in-chief must be at least 25 years old and hold an Israeli high school diploma or its equivalent. He/she must also never have committed a crime for which they were sentenced to three months or more in prison, and never have lost a license to practice law or medicine.
The current law also allows the interior minister to shut down any newspaper if he believes something it published endangers the public welfare. But use of that provision has been limited in practice by a famous High Court ruling in 1953: After then-Interior Minister Israel Rokach ordered the closure of Kol Ha’am and Al-Ittihad – two papers, owned by the Israeli Communist Party, that were harshly critical of the government – the papers petitioned the court. It overturned the order on the grounds that closing a paper was only justified if it could be proven to constitute a clear and present danger to the public welfare.
Prior to Sunday’s vote by the ministers, the Israel Democracy Institute sent a letter to all the panel’s members urging them to support Dery’s proposal. “The current law is a stain on Israeli democracy, both from the standpoint of the obligation to obtain a license to found a newspaper and the standpoint of the power given the interior minister to shut down newspapers,” the letter said. “This ordinance disproportionately infringes on freedom of expression and freedom of occupation.”