The action shocked and angered the pro-Israel community. “At a time when the Middle East is beset by barbarism and tyranny, it is malicious and a disservice to the truth to downgrade the one, thriving multi-cultural democracy in the region,” said one official at a pro-Israel group.
Robert Ruby, director of communications for Freedom House, insisted, “Israel, like some other democracies, has hovered on the line between ‘Free’ and ‘Partly Free’ for several years.” He struggled to explain the two rationales for the change.
“The first is the growing economic influence of Israel Hayom, which is distributed free of charge,” he said. “It has affected the economic model and stability of other publications.” In other words, if you are successful, you create an “unfree” press. Maybe the invention of the free Internet or the success of free Twitter and Facebook have made the United States unfree since so many publications have gone belly-up. He could not explain why that phenomenon does not affect the U.S. rating as “free,” but Israel Hayom’s success makes Israel “partly free.” (Previous reports noted the instability in the U.S. media market, but the United States did not lose its “free” rating.)
Noah Pollak, executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, observes, “The media business has never been stable in any free-market country. In just the past five years in America, Facebook — which is free! — has become the single biggest source of news in the country, a new reality that has quickly destabilized the media business.” He explains, “Publications that haven’t succeeded at creating Facebook-friendly content have failed, and publications (such as Buzzfeed) whose traffic and distribution model is designed almost entirely around Facebook have flourished.”
What was Israel to do — ban Israel Hayom? Oh no! “Freedom House would consider a government ban of a publication — whatever the country and whatever the publication – a serious infringement of press freedom,” Ruby said. Ah, so Israel is damned either way because it has a free press and free market where anyone can start a publication. The logic here is incomprehensible.
Ruby denied that Israel Hayom is being singled out because its owner Sheldon Adelson is conservative. However, Freedom House tipped its hand in its Israel report last year, asserting, “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.” “Openly aligned“? That sounds both ominous and inappropriate. (Is the New York Times dinged for being “openly aligned with President Obama and his liberal Democratic Party”?) Pollak notes, “Rupert Murdoch bought the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal, Carlos Slim [became the largest individual shareholder at] the New York Times, and Sheldon Adelson owns Yisrael HaYom. In both America and Israel, wealthy people own newspapers.” Those people, in a free-press environment, are entitled to express their editorial views as they see fit. Only in Israel is this apparently a problem. Pollak wisecracks, “It is time to downgrade Freedom House from Not Stupid to Mostly Stupid.”
Next, Ruby claimed, Freedom House objects to “the dramatic growth of paid government advertising unlabeled as such, appearing to be news content.” Hmm. That sort of sounds like state-run papers from Russia and China buying ad space in U.S. papers, cleverly formatted to look like news. At the time some controversy arose over that phenomenon, however, Freedom House rated the United States as “free.” Ruby claims that is different because sponsored content is identified as such in U.S. papers; however, the complaint has been in the United States that the average reader does not differentiate. Whereas Freedom House condemns Israel for having “not clearly identified” content as sponsored, the United States is not penalized.
Ruby denied that any special criteria was applied to Israel, saying “outside analysts” check to make sure their criteria is evenly applied. Maybe Freedom House needs new analysts.
Reaction was so fierce and negative because Freedom House’s reasoning was specious, so specious as to suggest that there is something else at play. Former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams observes: “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.”
Indeed, a 2013 PBS “NewsHour” story pointed out that Hayom was the antidote to a liberal monopoly, one that tried to intimidate other publications:
For decades, the liberal daily Yedioth Ahronot held a monopoly on Israeli readership.According to Oren Persico, a journalist for the non-profit Israeli media watchdog The Seventh Eye, Yedioth Ahronot would muscle kiosk owners who sold the paper to give it prominent placement, among other things.They were caught flatfooted by Adelson’s paper which, unlike other free metro daily tabloids, had a bit of muscle itself: a large politics section, opinion writing and national news. Israel YaHom also started hiring away top editorial talent from Yedioth Ahronot.“It wasn’t your usual crime, sex-scandal and sports kind of newspaper,” said Persico.
One wonders why Freedom House never objected to such tactics and instead condemns Israel for a flourishing conservative paper. Once again, Freedom House seems to have devised a level of scrutiny perfectly designed to sweep Israel into the pot of “partly free” countries. Abrams observed, “It’s shocking to see Freedom House join the chorus of biased attacks on Israel, and I’ve told its leadership that this year I will skip their annual gala. This is nothing to celebrate.”
There is something to mourn, however — the collapse of Freedom House’s intellectual integrity and moral standing.