In Israel the Knesset has been considering a bill amending the Libel Law that critics say could muzzle the country’s media if it becomes law. The Defamation Bill was given a first reading on 21 November 2011 by 42 votes to 31 after a heated debate.  It has been extremely controversial in Israel and has attracted adverse comment internationally.  It is difficult to see why.

The one-page text (PDF in Hebrew) of the bill has only two clauses.  First, one which raise the maximum damages payable in a libel claim without proof of special damage from NIS 50,000 (£8,500) to NIS 300,000 (£51,000).  Secondly, a requirement that the plaintiff in a successful defamation trial be given the right to clear their name in whatever publication he or she was defamed in.

It might be thought that these are modest reforms.  After all “general damages” of up to £250,000 can be awarded in England and in the United States the average award is US$471,221 – with awards, at the upper end of the scale of over US$100 million.

But the bill has produced strong reactions in Israel.  Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (pictured) criticized the bill, saying that

“freedom of expression is facing a legislative onslaught from within the Knesset… The media has earned this initiative, but the bill is disproportionate and will lead to the shutting down of small media outlets, while impeding the others’ ability to play their part in Israeli democracy.”

In  a recent article entitled “Killing Israeli Democracy slowly”  Moshe Gavish, a lawyer and former tax commissioner suggested that

“The aim of the bill is clear: to deter the press and media from publishing embarrassing investigative reports. It could be that the timing is not unconnected to a series of investigations recently carried out concerning the prime minister and other senior politicians and wealthy people. There is no empirical evidence to suggest that false reports are a staple of the media, or that existing legislation is insufficient to ensure that the information to which the public is exposed is generally accurate“.

Member of the Knesset, Eitan Cabel (Labour) said

“We will vehemently opposite this notion.  This is not a bill worthy of being included in Israel’s laws. It belongs in the trash.”

Several thousand protestors joined a rally in Tel Aviv against the legislation.  The “Jerusalem Post” reported that, on 20 November 2011 concerned journalists gathered at Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque Sunday to protest what they perceive to be an ominously widespread antagonism against the media.

However the bill was defended by Defence Minister Ehud Barak who said that

“Power corrupts, and the press has power. … Some journalists can be trusted not to embarrass people publicly, but there are others (who cannot be trusted)  The balances are not in the right place. I am in favor (of the legislation) … But the court will eventually decide”.

Overall, it is difficult to see why this increase in the level of general damages can properly be regarded as an improper fetter on freedom of expression.  In European or US terms even the level of general damages provided for in the amended law is very low indeed.

The requirement to publish a correction or apology also appears, in principle, to be unobjectionable.  However, such a requirement must be subject to approval by the court and limits on the length of the text which must be published.  It appears that the Bill, as presently drafted, contains no such limitations and this aspect may be objectionable.

A comparative study of the “Law of Defamation in Israel” before the proposed amendment can be found here.