Israel Drops in Freedom of Press Index Due to pro-Netanyahu, Adelson-owned Paper

Freedom House lowers Israel's ranking to partially free, citing 'growing impact of Israel Hayom, whose owner-subsidized business model endangered stability of other media outlets,' as well as undisclosed sponsored content.

Sheldon Adelson and Netanyahu.
Eyal Warshavsky

Israel has received its lowest rating ever on Freedom House's annual Freedom of the Press report, with its ranking dropping from "Free" to only "Partly Free," due to the increasingly prominent role of the Sheldon Adelson-owned Israel Hayom paper in the Israeli media market.

In the 2016 report, Israel ranked 65th globally with a score of 32 points on a 0-100 scale, with 0 indicating total freedom of the press, and 100 indicating none.

Freedom of the Press 2016: Israel ranks partially free on index, ranking 65th globally, 1st in Middle East.
Freedom House

In explaining the ranking, Freedom House cited "the growing impact of Israel Hayom, whose owner-subsidized business model endangered the stability of other media outlets and the unchecked expansion of paid content—some of it government funded—whose nature was not clearly identified to the public." The latter is a reference to paid content, sometimes by government agencies, on the Ynet website – the online sister publication of the Israeli Yedioth Aharnoth daily, owned by Arnon Mozes.

The report also cited concern over "Netanyahu [decision's] to serve as communications minister himself, giving him control over the regulation of various segments of the market."

Media wars: Israel Hayom and its owner, Sheldon Adelson in a duel with Yedioth Ahronoth and its owner, Arnon Mozes.
Amos Biderman

The reported noted an overall global decline in freedom of press and that Israel still ranked highest in the Middle East.

In 2009, Israel also lost its free-press rating, attaining a score of 31, mostly due to restriction imposed as result of security incidents and Operation Cast Lead. Since then Israel's rating has improved to 28-29, until it dipped to 30 once again in 2013 due to an unprecedented lawsuit against Haaretz journalists over leaked military documents and the near collapse of Channel 10 TV and what was perceived as political pressure on the channel.

The 2016 report noted that "Israel enjoys a lively, pluralistic media environment in which press freedom is generally respected. However, due to ongoing conflicts with Palestinian groups and neighboring countries, media outlets are subject to military censorship and gag orders, and journalists often face travel restrictions. Economic pressures have undermined the sustainability of key outlets in recent years, threatening long-term media pluralism."

The report further cited "the financial viability of private print and broadcast outlets" as a concern in 2015, "especially given the growing market share of the free paper Israel Hayom, the country’s leading print outlet. It is owned and subsidized by American businessman Sheldon Adelson and strongly supports Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu."

The think tank added that "Israeli media collectively offer a diverse range of views, and they are generally free from overt political interference. However, some private outlets are highly partisan in their news coverage, and broadcast stations have regularly faced instances of political pressure in recent years.

"The media became heavily involved in Israel’s March 2015 general elections. Many observers characterized the elections as a contest between Israel Hayom and its owner, Sheldon Adelson, on the one hand, and Yedioth Ahronoth and its owner, Arnon Mozes, on the other."

Elaborating, the report cited "the popularity of the free newspaper Israel Hayom, which has risen to capture about 40 percent of the daily market since its launch in 2007, has placed financial pressure on other mainstream papers, as its owner-subsidized business model has forced them to slash advertising rates, thus threatening their sustainability. Yedioth Ahronoth, previously the leading paper, places second at about 35 percent."

Regarding the paid content, Freedom House wrote: "Another source of concern was the increasing use of unmarked advertising and branded content in major media outlets, including the most popular news website, Ynet," which is owned by Yedioth and Mozes.