A controversial amendment to the state's libel law was passed in its first reading at the Knesset on Monday evening, with a 42-31 margin.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak voted in favor of the bill. MK Meir Sheetrit (Kadima), Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Shalom Simhon, MK Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi), and MK Yariv Levin (Likud) also voted in favor of the bill.
The vote concluded a fiery discussion that shook the plenum session over the bill, which aims to increase the maximum compensation paid for libel violations – without proof of damage – to NIS 300,000 (roughly $80,500), six times what it is today. Knesset members warned that the amendment would erode Israel's democracy and violate the freedom of the press.
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'Clear and present danger to freedom of the press'
As per the proposed bill, if it is proven that that a libelous statement was released intentionally and without giving the offended party an opportunity to respond, the sued party could be liable to pay as much as NIS 1.5 million (roughly $402,500) in damages.
MK Sheetrit at Monday's plenum session (Photo: Alex Kolomoisky)
MK Meir Sheetrit (Kadima), one of the Knesset members behind the proposal, defended the legislation during Monday's session.
"A journalist must report the truth, and cannot report what is untrue," he explained. "He must be careful, especially when it comes to a person's honor and reputation."
Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi), another initiator of the bill, said that while he intends to vote in favor of the legislation on Monday, he will withdraw his support if it is not revised in time for the second and third Knesset readings.
'You don't get such fines for killing'
MK Uri Orbach (Habayit Hayehudi) inveighed against the legislation, suggesting that it would disseminate fear among reporters.
"This is going to be a profitable deal for Knesset members, ministers, dignitaries… I almost beg you – slander me," he said sarcastically. "NIS 300,000. A year's worth of work at the Knesset. It's preferable to kill (than to slander) – you don't get a fine like that for manslaughter. I'm telling you, you've gone mad."
MK Dov Khenin (Hadash) blasted the proposed amendment.
"In especially barbaric justice systems, the punishment for libel is cutting out the offender's tongue," he said. "This is exactly what this law suggests we do. We have here a proposal for an extreme, wild, murderous sanction for the publication (of a statement) that did no harm.
"I feel like even Saudi Arabia doesn't have such a law," he added.
Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich spoke out against the measure as well, dubbing it a "doomsday weapon."
"Libel suits don't protect regular people, who don't have lawyers," she said. "This is a weapon held exclusively by those who have power. It's a weapon held by the rich."
Earlier, MK Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi), one of the bill's initiators, decided that he won't support it unless it is significantly revised.
"I am dissatisfied with the way the law is worded," he said. "The proposal is unbalanced in its protection of the freedom of speech and the independence of the media. If the wording of the law is not significantly revised in time for the second and third Knesset readings, I will vote against it."
Another initiator of the bill, MK Yariv Levin (Likud), said he agrees to make amendments to the law by which it would only apply to media outlets with wide circulation, and not to individual bloggers and Facebook users.