Freedom House lowers Israel’s press freedom ranking to ‘partly free’

Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) — Freedom House, a freedom of the press watchdog, downgraded Israel’s status from “free” to “partly free” citing the Israel Hayom daily, which is seen as pro-government.

“Israel declined due to the growing impact of Yisrael Hayom [sic], 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,” stated the report published on Wednesday by Freedom House.

in its 2015 report on Israel, Freedom House stated that, “Israel Hayom is owned and subsidized by Sheldon Adelson, a wealthy American businessman who is openly aligned with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his conservative Likud Party.”

The 2016 report ranks Israel at number 32 in terms of press freedom, directly behind Italy, which was also ranked “partly free,” as are all other countries with a score lower than 30. The United States was ranked “free” with a score of 21. Turkey, where journalists are routinely jailed and occasionally tortured for publishing content deemed insulting to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, maintained its “not free” status but slipped six points to receive a ranking of 71 this year.

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Israel’s downgrade angered its supporters who argued the move was biased against the Jewish state, Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post wrote on Tuesday in an article titled “Freedom House Drinks Anti-Israel Kool-Aid.”

It quotes Robert Ruby, director of communications for Freedom House, as explaining that the first factor behind the downgrade is the “economic influence of Israel Hayom, which is distributed free of charge” and “has affected the economic model and stability of other publications.” The second factor at play, he said is “the dramatic growth of paid government advertising unlabeled as such, appearing to be news content.” Israel, “like some other democracies, has hovered on the line between ‘Free’ and ‘Partly Free’ for several years,” Ruby added.

Asked whether Israel’s rating would improve if it banned Israel Hayom, Ruby answered this would be “a serious infringement of press freedom.” 

Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser under George W. Bush, told the Washington Post: “Israel Hayom was founded in 2007 to provide Israelis an alternative to the left-leaning press. It has become the widest circulation newspaper in the country, not just because it is free but because so many Israelis want an alternative view.” He continued, “To say that Israel is suddenly only ‘partly free’ because it now has a popular center-right newspaper is malicious and ignorant.”

Ruby denied allegations of bias against Israel by Freedom House.

Freedom House’s website says its “primary funding comes from USAID and U.S. State Department, as well as from other democratic governments — Canada, the EU, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden.”