Efrat Daskal, an Annenberg-Oxford 2013 alum and 2014 CGCS Visiting Scholar, looks at the impact that the daily newspaper Israel Hayom has had on democracy in Israel.
It is not uncommon to find the newspaper Israel Hayom (Israel Today) scattered all over the streets, coffee shops, or public transportation in Israel. On the surface, Israel Hayom is a regular newspaper; however, under the surface, the paper poses one of the most important and complicated challenges for Israeli democracy in these last couple of months.
The story of Israel Hayom began in 2007, when Sheldon Adelson, a Jewish-American businessman, decided to create a free, Hebrew-language daily Israeli newspaper. The paper provides its readers with a daily comprehensive news update in a light and easy to read manner. It is widely distributed in Israel and can usually be found near bus and train stations, shopping malls, universities, big office buildings, hospitals, and gas stations. For those wanting to catch up on daily events for free, Israel Hayom provides a convenient medium. Over the years, the circulation of the newspaper grew and, in 2010, it surpassed the circulation of its competitors, claiming the highest exposure rate for a newspaper in Israel. Today Israel Hayom is considered one of the country’s most successful newspapers.
Israel Hayom is not, however, an ordinary newspaper. First, it is a newspaper with a clear political agenda. Adelson is an avid supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the establishment of Israel Hayom was seen as a political move aimed at strengthening Netanyahu in Israel. Adelson denies these claims, but media critics have demonstrated over the years how the newspaper is biased towards Netanyahu. The bias has earned the paper the unique Israeli nickname “Bibiton,” (the combination of Netanyahu’s nickname “Bibi” and “Eton,” the word for newspaper in Hebrew), which translates to “the newspaper of Benjamin Netanyahu.” Second, the financial model of this newspaper differs from those of other media outlets. The newspaper charges extremely low prices for ad space, so, unlike other news outlets, it makes no significant profit from selling ads. Sheldon Adelson’s fortune serves as Israel Hayom’s primary source of income, as Adelson continues to invest in the paper. Third and finally, in addition to being available by subscription and allowing readers (for a relatively low price) to receive the paper at the doorstep every morning, Israel Hayom is very accessible in public places throughout Israel, which means that many are exposed to the newspaper. Particularly due to the paper’s financial backing, it appears that Israel Hayom exists primarily to serve the political agenda of both Adelson and Netanyahu, all while financially crushing its competitors.
Why does this newspaper pose a challenge to Israeli democracy? In March 2014, Israeli parliament member Eitan Cabel proposed a law that would render illegal the wide, free of charge distribution of a full-sized newspaper. As Israel Hayom is the only free newspaper in Israel, it is apparent that the law aims to hurt only Israel Hayom. The law, known as the “Israel Hayom Law,” immediately aroused controversy in Israel. It managed to divide traditional political alliances; for example, in addition to the Labour party, the law proposal was sponsored by members of six other parties, including those in coalition with the Netanyahu’s “Likud” party. Those who support the law claim that by having to pay for the newspaper, the exposure rate of the newspaper will decrease, giving the other newspapers a chance to compete with Israel Hayom fairly. Those who oppose the law claim that this legislation is undemocratic, since it aims to shut down a specific newspaper and threatens the freedom of speech in Israel.
On November 12, 2014, the “Israel Hayom Law” passed the preliminary vote and is now being discussed in the Israeli Parliament committees. Following discussion, it will once again be voted on, and will eventually become a law should enough votes be received. Experts argue, however, that the bill will never pass. Regardless, there are problems created by the existence of Israel Hayom that need to be handled.
To conclude, I would like to offer some suggestions on how to address the issue in a more democratic way. First, it has previously been suggested that, due to its success, Israel Hayom should be considered a monopoly. If this was the case, advertisement pricing could be regulated, forcing Israel Hayom to raise its price for ad space. This would, in part, give other newspapers a more even playing field upon which to attract advertisers and compete financially. A second possible solution might be to legislate rules dealing with the transparency of media outlet ownership. These rules would compel all media outlets, including Israel Hayom, to be more transparent about their economic and political interests. Similar legislation exists in Germany and France, but the attempt to legislate such a law in Israel failed almost seven years ago.. The controversy surrounding the “Israel Hayom Law,” however, offers an opportunity to revive this transparency legislation. Finally, though it may sound naïve, it would be beneficial to create more media literacy programs to educate the public on the ‘behind the scenes’ happenings of Israeli newspapers, including those of Israel Hayom. There are not many programs in Israel currently dealing with this issue. The ones that do exist today primarily target children and teenagers, while focusing on the dangers of being exposed to indecent content on television and online. Thus, media literacy programs for adults are needed in order to teach citizens about the political and financial interests of media outlet owners, including, but not limited to, the owner of Israel Hayom. In this way, citizens could learn to critically evaluate the news they receive from different media outlets and to distinguish between news and political propaganda. A combination of these solutions will ensure that both Israel Today and the democratic character of Israel will continue to exist both now and in the future.
 The head of the “Likud” party in Israel and Israel prime minister since 2009
 A member of the “Labour” party, which opposes the Likud party in the Israeli parliament
Efrat Daskal is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication and Journalism, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her research interests are media ethics, media policy and media literacy. To read her full bio, click here.