“Democracy Under Attack” screamed the webpage of Ha’aretz – a popular, left-leaning Israeli broadsheet last week. The event prompting the headline was a proposed alteration to the wording of the Libel Law, submitted this month to the Knesset by three members of its ruling coalition. Having passed a first reading, the change is likely to be accepted. However, public opposition has quickly arisen, opening up an important debate on the limits on free speech in the Jewish state.
Accusations of hyperbole may, at first glance, have some basis. The proposed changes relate primarily to the monetary fine attached to “slanderous speech,” and a seemingly technical rewording of the requirement to prove damage. However, legal experts have suggested that the law could presumably be stretched to include throwaway comments made on Facebook groups and news websites.
“The world of George Orwell is upon us,” lamented MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima).
Prime Minister Netanyahu hit back, “We are taking proportionate, responsible action…our democracy will be healthier and stronger.”
Behind the rhetoric, there are legitimate concerns that the press’s ability or willingness to investigate government corruption will be hampered by the astronomic fines (NIS 300,000 [$81,000] for unsubstantiated damage and up to NIS 600,000 [$162,000] if the damage is proven).
Supporters of the bill claim that restrictions are necessary. The Israeli press does have a tendency to fast-track dirt on public figures for publication without taking much trouble in verifying it, and the resulting false accusations can often be career-ending. Still, the right-leaning politicians passing the bill generally perceive themselves as victims of an ingrained left-wing bias in the media, and suspicions remain.
Being a South African citizen, I immediately noticed a parallel with news coming out about the Protection of State Information bill, more commonly known as the Secrecy law. The bill has crucially strengthened the government’s ability to classify information, giving any ruling party official the right to declare a document a state secret. The bill predictably passed by a huge majority – no surprise considering the sizable majority that the ANC enjoys in South Africa’s parliament. Pending approval by the National Council of Provinces, the law is expected to be passed in the near future.
Outrage has been immediate from the local media. A protest referred to as Black Tuesday was staged by the National Press Club. Thousands of protesters wore black – a reference to a similar tactic used during the apartheid government’s crackdowns on press freedoms.
The Star, a popular Johannesburg newspaper, echoed the editorials coming out of Tel Aviv, calling the South African law an “attack on open democracy.”
Another daily termed it an “abomination,” comparing it to the previous South African regime’s notorious censorship and intimidation of journalists.
The issue is particularly sensitive in South Africa. In a region where the fall of colonialism has often led to chaotic and brutal dictatorships – with neighbour Zimbabwe a prime example – there is a constant fear that if the leadership is given too much power, there may be no way back. Government corruption is already prevalent, and a vigilant media has played a large role in keeping it under control. Fears remain that the law may leave investigative journalists seeking accountability open to prosecution and create an atmosphere in which whistle-blowers are afraid to come forward.
“Nonsense,” charges ANC spokesman Keith Khoza, claiming that people will still be able to prove public interest through the Access of Information Act.
Although there are parallels between the two situations, the comparisons are a little exaggerated. Israel was founded by left-wing European socialists on the principles of the Enlightenment, and has a tradition of forceful debate and self-criticism. In South Africa, where allegations of corruption are rife, it is easier to see press censorship precipitating a general decline in standards of free speech in the country.
Allowing government officials free rein in classifying documents may also present more of a temptation than letting them sue reporters for libel. Still, there is a large gap between either of the laws and the “draconian” measures “undermining democracy” decried by Reporters Without Borders.
Nor is the issue so cut-and-dried as an infringement on the free availability of information. Free speech is not without limits, as even U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. declared that shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre is a classic example of speech not protected by the First Amendment given that it would serve no conceivable useful purpose and is extremely and imminently dangerous.
However, that which we perceive to be useful purpose or imminent danger vary greatly with perspective. Consequences attached to libel and classification of state secrets are definite examples of limits which need to be placed on free speech. But the delicate balance between censorship and freedom should not be changed without a vigorous public discourse.
The debates continue to rage. As always, threats to civil liberties evoke heavy emotions, but the mere fact that such debates are held is a good sign for any country. Whatever the outcome may be, proclamations of the death of democracy are probably exaggerated.