Israel's Interior Ministry has prevented the publication of at least 62 newspapers over the past decade, according to data made available to Haaretz after a request filed under the Freedom of Information Act.
Preventing the publication of a newspaper is possible under Israeli law for such reasons as the editor's "lack of education" or criminal record or for technical reasons connected with the application for a license.
The ministry refused Haaretz's request for a full breakdown according to reason, but said that 459 newspapers had been approved for publication over the period – meaning that more than 10 percent of the applications were rejected. In the center of the country, excluding Tel Aviv, rejections were as high as one-third.
"It's a power unparalleled in democratic countries,"' said attorney Dan Yakir of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI.) "There is no justification for the state being involved and maintaining a licensing regime for newspapers."
"Beyond the principle of the matter," Yakir added, "the Press Ordinance is not suited to the modern era, in which the printed press requires licensing but the Internet press does not."
Enacted in 1933 by the British mandatory authorities, the Press Ordinance has never been revoked. "It is clear from the statistics that it is far from being a dead letter in the law books," Yakir said.
A newspaper is defined by the ordinance as "any printed object that includes news, articles, event descriptions or any other issue of public importance published in any language and published in Israel for sale or for free distribution."
In order to get a license, the editor of the newspaper needs to be above the age of 25, hold an Israeli matric certificate or the equivalent and be without a criminal record of three months' imprisonment or more.
The editor also needs to certify that he or she has never had a doctor's or lawyer's license revoked.
The interior minister has the authority to order the closure of a newspaper if, in his opinion, a specific item is likely to endanger the public good. That happened in 1953, when then-Interior Minister Yisrael Rokach ordered the closure of Kol Ha'am and Al Itahad newspapers, which were harshly critical of the government.
The closure was overturned by the High Court of Justice, which ruled that the minister had not proved that the papers posed a certain danger to the public good.
Among the applications to publish newspapers that were rejected by the ministry's northern district between 2004 and 2013 was "Al Didba," from Kfar Manda in the Lower Galilee, which was disqualified because the applicant or editor had a criminal record for building infractions.
In Yokneam, an application to publish a newspaper named Luni was disqualified due to "a criminal record from a district military court." Other applicants were asked to provide proof of educational qualifications.
One of the most blatant instances of the misuse of the licensing regime was the case of the Eilat local newspaper Erev Erev, which published an investigatory report into hotel swimming pools in the city in 2001.
"When we asked for the interior ministry's comment," the paper's manager Rotem Noam told Haaretz last week, "they made it dependent on our presenting a valid license." The paper had a license, he said, but it had been destroyed in a fire in 1995.
When the ministry was unable to find the license in its archives, it issued an immediate closure order and announced that it had closed the oldest local newspaper in the country, founded in 1962.
The paper prepared for a legal battle, but the license was found after another search. It turned out that "they only searched the archive from 1988. They should have gone down to the basement for the earlier files, but they didn't do that," Noam said.
The paper sued the state, winning 90,000 shekels and an admission of culpability from the Interior Ministry.
The Press Ordinance is not the only obstacle to publishing a newspaper in Israel. The mandate-era emergency regulations also require that newspapers be licensed and they set arbitrary conditions for the granting of such licenses.
Clause 94, for example, states that the ministry's district head "is permitted, at his own discretion and without entering into debate, to award or to refuse to award any type of permit, to set conditions and to cancel or issue dependencies for such a permit or to change or delete conditions attached to the permit or to set new conditions."
In the 80s, the state closed down several Arabic newspapers under the draconian emergency regulations, though its use remained rare. Last November, however, the newspaper and website of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement were closed after the movement was declared illegal. It was not necessary to resort to the regulations in that case.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has been fighting for the repeal of the press licensing requirement for over two decades. A High Court petition to have both the ordinance and the emergency regulations repealed was denied on a technicality.
Another petition, in 2004, was withdrawn by common consent after the ministry issued a memorandum, Press Law, that was intended to replace the licensing system. The court ordered the ministry to inform ACRI every time it used its authority to refuse a license.
That was a decade ago. ACRI says it has not received a single notification from the ministry, though the statistics show that the ministry continued to deny licenses.
ACRI petitioned the court a third time in 2014, this time in partnership with I'lam, a Palestinian Arab NGO devoted to media freedom. "Our main argument us that the law no longer suits the nature of the society, which describes itself as democratic," said attorney Alaa Abdallah, who is representing I'lam in the petition.
A bench of three judges ruled last April that "there is no argument that the time has come for change." That said, they gave the new government, which had been elected the previous month, time to deal with the issue, saying that "it would be appropriate if it were to happen soon."
In October, the Interior Ministry asked for a delay, though it wrote in its defense brief that it supports the petition – on condition that the Knesset passes a "law on terror," which would significantly widen the state's authority in fighting terror.
Last week, the ministry asked for another delay, following the resignation of former minister Silvan Shalom.
"They're ridiculing the court," said ACRI's Yakir. "We previously asked for an order nisi (which would compel the state to explain why it doesn't cancel the licensing the regime). There's no reason to delay the cancellation of the ordinance."
"The issue is in front of the court," the ministry said in response, "and the Interior Ministry's answer will be given to the court at the appropriate time."
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