(JTA) — A freedom-of-the-press watchdog cited the Sheldon Adelson-owned Israel Hayom daily in downgrading Israel’s status from “free” to “partly free.”
“Israel declined due to the growing impact of Yisrael 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” in major media outlets, including the popular Ynet news site, said the report published Wednesday by Freedom House.
The 2016 report on 195 countries gave Israel a score of 32 in terms of press freedom, directly behind Italy, which was also termed “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 and dropped six points to 71.
The report listed 86 countries as free, 59 as partly free and 50 as not free in press coverage.
In its 2015 report on Israel, Freedom House said “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.” Israeli critics say the newspaper is pro-government.
Israel’s downgrade is biased and “incomprehensible,” columnist Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post wrote Tuesday in an article titled “Freedom House Drinks Anti-Israel Kool-Aid.”
The story 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.”
Ruby added that Israel, “like some other democracies, has hovered on the line between ‘free’ and ‘partly free’ for several years.”
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 Rubin: “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.
“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.
The report also notes that media outlets in Israel “are subject to military censorship and gag orders, and journalists often face travel restrictions.”
Freedom House’s website says its “primary funding comes from USAID and the U.S. State Department, as well as from other democratic governments — Canada, the EU, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden.”