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The thin line between incitement and freedom of the press

On the face of it, a protest by Likud youth against one of Israel’s most prominent newspapers seems like a non-issue. But in the context of last summer’s war and the growing threats against left-wing journalists, freedom of the press may no longer be able to protect the media.

By Gaby Goldman

Journalists, editors, media outlets – we all love simple stories. Something straightforward, black and white, good or bad. And this is what makes it harder for me to admit that the Likud party’s demonstration in front of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily’s building on Sunday night is not a simple story. In fact, it brings up more questions than answers.

On the one hand, there is the issue of democracy and free speech. In the democratic country that we strive to be, every person or organization is allowed to express their opinion on any matter, including against the media, as long as it does not lead to incite against or harm others.

Likud youth hold a protest against Yedioth Ahronoth.

A protest held by the Likud youth chapter against Yedioth Ahronoth. (Nir Gontarz)

On the face of it, Sunday night’s protest played by the rules of democracy: an organization merely protested because it felt wronged. But from here on out it starts to become more complicated, especially since we are not talking about just any organization, but about official representatives of the ruling party (the demonstration was organized by the chairman of the Likud youth chapter), who are openly protesting against one of the leading media outlets in the country. And this is just a week after the prime minister himself called on his supporters to “be brave and attack the media.” Over what? It doesn’t matter – just attack.

Every organization, including the ruling political party, has ways to critique the media. They can investigate, reveal hidden interests, lodge a complaint with the Israel Press Council, lodge a complaint with the police or open a competing news outlet. True, neither side of the political spectrum is innocent, and the attempt to pass a law against the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom newspaper on the one hand, or what is seen as a direct attack on Channel 10 (which is often critical of the prime minister) on the other, are perfect examples of this. But in our fervor as journalists to protect the holiness of freedom of speech, we fall into the trap of our own memory span and forget the context.

“I don’t think we have seen such a protest by the Likud youth since the days of Oslo,” wrote the group’s chairman, David Shayan, who was in charge of the protest in front of Yedioth. For all those who are too young to remember, that is the same Oslo that led the current prime minister to stand on a balcony in Jerusalem while protesters below him waved photos of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in an SS uniform. We all remember what that led to, but I will give Shayan the benefit of the doubt that his comparison to Oslo was a mere coincidence.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the infamous "Rabin the Traitor" rally in Jerusalem, October 1995. (Screenshot)

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the infamous “Rabin the Traitor” rally in Jerusalem, October 1995. (Screenshot)

It is true that Israeli journalists have not been physically harmed. There was only minor incitement against them during the Gaza war, and Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy was forced to walk around with a body guard. “But hey! Nothing really happened,” some claim. It is also true that the Likud demonstration was neither violent nor did it call to physically harm any of Yedioth’s workers, who were working just two floors up at the time.

Sunday’s protest may have been full of dorky students, but who can promise that next time it won’t be full of hot-tempered jerks? Who can promise that protests don’t lead some extremist right-wing teenager to take his or her own initiative?

More than anything, the demonstration reminded me of the story of the frog and the boiling water. A frog that is thrown into a pot of boiling water will immediately jump out and run away (please don’t try this at home). On the other hand, a frog who is placed into a pot of water that is slowly heated won’t feel its surroundings reach a boiling point until it is too late.

And this brings me back to the questions. “Will demonstrations lead to the next assassination? Isn’t this a bit too much?” asked a journalist friend. I have no idea, but I will be happy to be proven wrong.

Right now, I keep thinking about about what another journalist friend said, just five minutes later: “The next assassination will probably target a journalist. And then everyone will shirk their responsibility and say that it was just a case of a few rotten apples.” By that time, being proven wrong will be of little help.

Gaby Goldman is an Israeli journalist and an editor on +972’s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call, where this article was originally published in Hebrew.

Press freedom in Israel: Democracy in the age of self-censorship
Editorial: Demanding freedom of movement and access for Palestinian journalists

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    1. Bruce Gould

      U.N report: in 2014 Israel demolished over 1,100 Palestinian homes: http://mondoweiss.net/2015/02/israel-demolished-palestinians

      “Israel destroyed 590 Palestinian buildings in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in 2014, displacing 1,177 people, according to a new study by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). This constitutes the highest level of displacement in the West Bank since the UN began monitoring the issue in 2008.”

      You can contribute to BDS here: http://www.bdsmovement.net/

      Reply to Comment
      • Pedro X

        Off topic again Bruce. Stop with the crocodile tears for those who do not obey the law and get legal permits to build. Palestinian application for building permits in Jerusalem are approved at about the same percentage rate as Jewish applications. The fact is that Palestinians rarely try to get legal permits and build where they think they should. They might do it that way in Somalia but not in Israel.

        Reply to Comment
        • Bruce Gould

          Palestinian building permits are rarely granted; you can determine this by talking to actual human beings. It’s an apartheid-like system; no Jew since 1967 has had his/her home demolished for reasons relating to building permits, but tens of thousands of Palestinians have.

          Reply to Comment
          • Pedro X

            Justin Weiner’s comprehensive study called “Illegal Construction in Jerusalem, A Variation on an Alarming Global Phenomenon” and Camera both documented that percentage rates of successful building permit applications granted to Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem were similar. He also noted that the municipality of Jerusalem had set over 36,000 building permits for the Arab sector, enough to last them to 2020.

            What was different was the massive illegal building in the Arab Sector without building permits and the relatively few demolitions which made illegal construction more profitable then complying with building laws and paying the building permit and sewer and water hookup fees.

            Weiner’s book showed building code violations, criminal Palestinians building on other owners’ and public lands. For instance he shows a picture of a Palestinian home built on top of a basket ball court of a school.

            Weiner also showed that demolition of illegal structures was more prevalent in West Jerusalem than East Jerusalem in most years.

            He also showed that the Jerusalem municipality translated plans into Arabic so Arab speaking residents could consult and ask questions about the plans.

            So Bruce stop spouting myths and read the cold hard facts. You have been fooled by Palestinian propaganda time and time again.

            Reply to Comment
          • Brian

            Ksenia Svetlova: “they accused me of putting out left-wing propaganda. But that’s the reality.”

            Reply to Comment
    2. MIkesailor

      I am curious. What was the point of this protest? were they protesting the publication of Sara’s kleptocracy of making a bottle collection in the PM”s residence? Were they inciting a certain story or group thereof writing about Palestinians as if they were to be considered human beings? Actually, with military censors editing all material through a “national security” lens (which means generally censoring anything embarrassing to the military and “security services”), “free speech’ does not exist unless at the whim of the legislature. Anyway, self-censorship is far more effective at keeping the “dirty laundry” out of the papers. Look at YNet and how, over the years, they have removed most “liberal” columnists from their pages. Purely for financial reasons of course. In fact, only Haaretz with its stalwarts Gideon Levy and Amira Hass has proved the only Israeli daily newspaper with the fortitude not to play completely with the standard Zionist lime. In the US, the media is cower by what is sees as a financial risk if it promotes any other than the Zionist line. Money, that’s the real way to keep the media is check. Cancelling subscriptions; making leaders “unavailable’ for any but the softest of interviews; cutting off access to all in government, or out of government for that matter; all of these prove to be better weapons against the press than a protest. By the way, what is “incitement” in Israel anyway? Is it only used against those like Zoabi who decry the special status of Jews while Netanyahu and Lieberman say things which would almost make Kahane blush?

      Reply to Comment
    3. Kolumn4

      Where is the incitement? What in heaven’s name are you upset about? Perhaps you would like to ban all protest, you know, just in case it “lead some extremist teenager to take his or her own initiative”? Jesus. This has got to be the most useless and senseless article ever written, only matched in uselessness by my comment to it.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Ginger Eis

      For (renowned) Jurists, delineating the line where freedom of speech ends and incitement begins is most often than not a very tedious and rigorous legal task that is akin to laterally splitting a hair into several pieces with the fingers – especially if the expressed opinion is political and expressed in a political context. The irony is that delineating such a line is not difficult for normal/average reasonable person who operates on the principle of “not to do unto one’s fellow what is hateful to oneself” as taught by Hillel . What you don’t reasonably expect others to say of you, say not of others – regardless of whether or not you are a journalist, a politician, Madame Sara Netanyahu, attorney at law Zipporah Livni, or an ordinary person. Do not abuse your position to abuse others. That’s how we get along with one another is a peaceful democratic society based on the Rule of Law. We all have responsibilities – depending on, on the one hand, our respective profession and, on the other hand, irrespective of said profession.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bryan

        A wonderful sentiment Ginger, though please note the principle of “not to do unto one’s fellow what is hateful to oneself” is not a specifically Jewish concept, but is common to all the major world religions and is also the ethical basis for atheism. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Rule). It is of course a marvellously simple yet all-embracing concept and wonderfully encapsulates the world’s reasoned criticism of Zionism.

        Reply to Comment
      • Eliana

        “The irony is that delineating such a line is not difficult for normal/average reasonable person who operates on the principle of “not to do unto one’s fellow what is hateful to oneself” as taught by Hillel . What you don’t reasonably expect others to say of you, say not of others – regardless of whether or not you are a journalist, a politician, Madame Sara Netanyahu, attorney at law Zipporah Livni, or an ordinary person.”

        If there is a more hypocritical comment than this–on your personal level on this blogsite, or in respect of the occupation, or the treatment of children, or the utterances of Madame “Let them eat cake, and return those bottles for me you slave!” Sara Netanyahu’s spouse who calls Zohair Bahloul what he did and stood there on that infamous balcony and raised his fist in the air and egged on the murderers “with blood and fire”–I’ve not yet read it. And I have read a lot of things.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Ginger Eis

      No Case Law illustrates how the law delineates the border between freedom of speech and anti-Semitic bigotry better than a recent groundbreaking Judgment of the Court in Germany, which Ruled that incitement against “Zionists” constitute Incitement Against The Jewish People! In my opinion, this is a legal earthquake (with far-reaching consequences) that is long overdue. When Mr. Taylan Can shouted: “Tod und Hass den Zionisten!”, he meant: “Kill and hate the Jews”, according to the Court. When Mr. Can was saying those words, he knew he was calling for mass murder/genocide and driven by the hate in his heart against Jews, and he needed no legal expert to tell him that he has crossed the boundary from free speech into incitement against an ethnic group. We all know those boundaries in our heart and yet many choose to ignore them and rationalize their racist actions, but the law is now taking a stand on the issue: the word “Zionist” has ingrained itself into the societal psyche as a code word for “Jew” and anti-Semites will gradually find it more difficult to hide behind clichés such as: “oh, I have nothing against Jews, I only hate Zionists”, while propagating hate against the Jewish People. Anti-Zionism is becoming toxic.

      Dankeschön, Deutschaland!


      Reply to Comment
      • Bryan

        “Death to Zionists” is as utterly unacceptable as any other type of incitement (e.g. “Death to Arabs”) so hopefully the Israeli legal system will take a leaf out of the German book and quickly clamp down on hate speech in all its forms. It is not even acceptable to argue “death to Zionism”, though hopefully we are seeing the escalation of a process whereby an out-dated and inappropriate twentieth-century political philosophy will eventually be superseded by something far more humane and less inclined to racism, colonialism and ethnic cleansing. As a well-known Iranian said “the regime that occupies Jerusalem must vanish from the pages of time” (though his remarks were willfully mistranslated as “wipe Israel off the face of the map,” by numerous dissimulating journalists and politicians).

        Reply to Comment
    6. Mikesailor

      The stupid argument over “incitement” can be stated much like the rules against pornography: Each individual jurist “knows it when he sees it”. It is worse when the bias of the judge making the determination is well known and it is “common knowledge” that such “definitions” only play for or against one group. That is why Ginger is such a disingenuous hasbarista. “Death to Zionists” is NOT antisemitic. Unless only Jews are Zionists; and Judaism, the religion, is synonymous with Zionism. Therefore this definitional analogy is intellectually indefensible to say the least. Which is why Ginger likes it so. Yet, “Death to Arabs”, a common refrain among the Israeli Jews is not condemned by Ginger even though it is outright racist. Is the second “incitement” against a definable group? Yes it is. The only definable group in the first group are those who support Israel. Big difference. “Death to Arabs” is racism versus a definable group of people for who they are while the “Death to Zionists” chant is against what people do. Funny how only those who condemn Zionism are punished while the other side are either ignored or lauded. Zoabi = incitement, while Lehava = What exactly? Anti-Zionism = incitement while Anti-Arab, Anti-African, Anti-Equality, Anti-Justice = the State of Israeli Zionists and their supporters.

      Reply to Comment