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Freedom of speech, including of the press, has been recognized by Israel’s Supreme Court as a fundamental right. In balancing freedom of speech against other principles recognized under the legal system, the courts have applied relevant balancing formulas. In addition, the Supreme Court recognized a “defense of responsible journalism” to protect journalists against defamation suits. The level of online attacks against journalists in Israel appears to be steadily increasing, particularly in the lead-up to the September 2019 national election. Although there are currently no specific provisions for protection of journalists from harassment, it appears that they may enjoy general protections such as those against incitement to violence, sexual harassment, violation of the right to privacy, and transmission of misleading information, as well as defamation.

I. Freedom of the Press

Israel’s Supreme Court has recognized that protection of speech extends to all forms of expression and all the content of such expression, and encompasses freedom of the press and of political speech. It therefore extends to publications on social media. Freedom of speech, however, is not absolute and may be restricted under limited circumstances where it conflicts with the right to human dignity, a right protected under Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom.[1] In addition, speech may be restricted based on statutory law containing prohibitions on incitement for racism, terrorism and violence, or denial of the Holocaust and praise for atrocities committed by the Nazis, or because it constitutes an insult to a public servant and defamation, among other limitations.[2]

In balancing freedom of speech against other principles recognized under the legal system, the courts have applied relevant balancing formulas. Recognizing the significance of protecting speech, the Supreme Court has applied a narrow interpretation to restrictions that may limit it, such as under the offense of insult to a public servant or defamation.[3] Recognizing a “defense of responsible journalism” against defamation suits, for example, the Court extended the defense, under appropriate conditions enumerated by law, to circumstances where the challenged publication was made in good faith, even if the information it contained ultimately turned out to be false.[4]

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II. Harassment of Journalists

The level of online attacks against journalists in Israel appears to be steadily increasing, particularly in the lead-up to the September 17, 2019, national election. An article published by the Tel Aviv Journalists Association on September 5, 2019, twelve days before the election, reports on the findings of a “hate index against [Israeli] journalists on the web.”[5] The index examined the extent of hate discourse directed at journalists and media people on social networks (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, forums and talkbacks) for the preceding three months. The index surveyed the extent of the hate discourse against 100 leading journalists and media figures in Israel, a country of about nine million residents,[6] both in their personal pages as well as in cyberspace in general. According to the article, most of the discourse related to these journalists was newsworthy, around their publications, or held among journalists, while the hate discourse was directed at them by surfers. The article includes a table indicating a significant rise in hate discourse against journalists during the month of August 2019.[7]

Israel’s TV Channel 12 crime reporter, Guy Peleg, who was responsible for leaks from a corruption case in which Prime Minister (PM) Binyamin Netanyahu is allegedly implicated, appears to be the top target for hostile messages directed by the PM and his son, Yair Netanyahu.[8] On August 30 and 31 alone, the PM’s Facebook page had at least three messages attacking Channel 12. One directly targeted Mr. Peleg, accompanied by a photo with the words “Fake News,” alluding to the leaks.[9] A request for banning publication of the leaked information had been rejected on August 30 by the Central Electoral Commission.[10]

According to Israeli news reports, Channel 12 has attached a personal security guard to Mr. Peleg, following a slew of threats directed at him on his personal WhatsUp and other social networks, such as one accusing Mr. Peleg of inciting hatred against the PM and threatening that “God will make you pay.”[11]

In an interview with Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Reporters without Borders, he expressed concern about what he perceived as the “harsh public atmosphere against journalists” in Israel.[12] Among examples noted by Deloire was a giant ad with pictures of four journalists (including Guy Peleg) posted before the April 2019 election, with the caption “They will not decide.” Deloire noted that “the fact that Israeli media agencies have acted in the service of certain politicians is problematic,“ hinting at two alleged corruption cases against the PM known as case 2000 and case 4000, and the existence of the freely distributed “Israel Today” newspaper, that had been known to support Netanyahu.[13] Deloire noted, however, that Israel’s judiciary and law enforcement are independent and capable of investigating such corruption cases.[14]

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III. Legal Protections against Online Harassment of Journalists

There are currently no special provisions for protection of journalists from online harassment. It appears that the following general prohibitions may be applied to acts of harassment of journalists by any means, including by online dissemination.

A. The Penal Law

The Penal Law 5737-1977 prohibits advertisement of calls to commit, praise, sympathize or encourage incitement to commit violence. The law imposes a penalty of five years’ imprisonment for publishing content that, under the circumstances, raises a real possibility of causing a violent act.[15] In addition, threatening persons in any way to unlawfully harm their good names or livelihoods, with the intention of intimidating or teasing them, is punishable by three years’ imprisonment.[16]

B. The Prevention of Sexual Harassment Law

Under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Law 5758-1998, making a statement that constitutes sexual harassment in writing, orally, or through visual or auditory presentation, including by computer or computer material, is punishable by two- to four-years’ imprisonment as well as a fine.[17] For the purpose of the law, sexual harassment includes:

(5) Defamatory or degrading treatment of a person in relation to his or her sexuality, including his sexual orientation; [as well as]

(5a) The publication of a photograph, film or recording of a person, which focuses on his sexuality, under the circumstances in which the publication may humiliate or despise the person, and his consent has not been given for publication.[18]

C. The Computers Law

The Computers Law, 5755-1995, imposes a penalty of five years’ imprisonment on any person who

(1) [t]ransmits to another or stores on a computer false information or commits an act so that it results in false information or false output; or

(2) [w]rites, transfers or stores software on the computer so that the result of its use will be false information or output, or operates a computer while using such software.[19]

In this section, "false information" and "false output" means information or output which may be misleading, in accordance with its purposes.

D. The Defamation Law

The Defamation Law, 5725-1965, prohibits publication of content that might

(1) humiliate a person in the eyes of the people or make the person a target of hatred, contempt or ridicule;

(2) despise a person for acts, conduct or characteristics attributed to him;

(3) harm a person’s position, whether in public office or in any other capacity, in his/her business, occupation or profession;

(4) despise a person for his race, origin, religion, place of residence, age, sex, sexual orientation or disability. [20]

For the purpose of liability under the Defamation Law, “publication” includes advertisements made “ . . .  whether orally or in writing or in print, including painting, figure, movement, sound and any other means.”[21] The prohibition against publishing defamatory content includes a publication that

(1)  . . . was intended for a person other than the injured person and has reached that person or another person other than the victim; [or]

(2) was in writing and the writing could under the circumstances, reach a person other than the injured person.[22]

Prohibited publication of defamatory content may constitute either a criminal offense or a civil tort, resulting in imprisonment or fines, depending on conditions enumerated by the law.[23]

E. The Protection of Privacy Law

Online harassment of journalists may also qualify as a violation of the Protection of Privacy Law, 5741-1981.[24] Among other things, this law prohibits following persons in a way that may harass them, as well as making public a person's photograph under circumstances in which the publication may degrade him or her.[25] Additionally, the publication of a matter relating to a person's personal life, including the person’s sexual past, health status, or conduct in private, is similarly prohibited.[26] The law defines “publication” in accordance with its definition under the Defamation Law, addressed above.[27] Intentional harming of a person’s privacy is punishable by five years’ imprisonment.[28]

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Ruth Levush
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
September 2019


[1] Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom, Sefer Ha-Hukkim [SH] [Book of Laws] (official gazette) 5752-1992 No. 1391, as amended, https://perma.cc/9CP2-X8K7.

[2] For additional information, see Ruth Levush, Initiatives to Counter Fake News in Selected Countries: Israel 41 (Law Library of Congress, Apr. 2019), https://perma.cc/GPF9-RML4; Ruth Levush, Limits on Freedom of Expression: Israel 39 (Law Library of Congress, July 2019), https://perma.cc/UCL9-P23E.

[3] Additional Hearing, Crim 7383/08 Ungarfeld v. State of Israel (July 11, 2011) (in Hebrew), https://perma.cc/67CR-HPND.

[4] Additional Hearing, Civil 2121/12 Anonymous v. Ilana Dayan, 67(1) Piske Din [PD] 667 (Sept. 18, 2014) (in Hebrew), https://perma.cc/87SA-FQ2Y; see also Ruth Levush, Limits on Freedom of Expression: Israel, supra note 2, at 44-45.

[5] Shahar Gur, Avalanche in Hate Speech, Tel Aviv Journalists Association (Sept. 5, 2019) (in Hebrew), https://perma.cc/ECE4-JWPG.

[6] Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics Homepage (in Hebrew), https://perma.cc/F7VE-5NP4.

[7] Shahar Gur, supra note 5.

[8] Itamar B’Z, Continuation of the War in Other Ways, Seventh Eye (Aug. 2, 2019) (in Hebrew), https://perma.cc/8FHN-ZE73.

[9] Israeli Reporter Hounded by Prime Minister Netanyahu, Reporters without Borders (Sept. 6, 2019), https://perma.cc/4DFZ-XCXD.

[10] Id.

[11] Raz Scanik, A Security Guard Was Pinned to Legal Affairs Correspondent Guy Peleg, Yediot Acharonot (Aug. 30, 2019) (in Hebrew), https://perma.cc/L7EG-8PM4.

[12] Shahar Samocha, CEO of "Journalists without Borders" Explains Why Hostility to Journalists in Israel Is a Slippery Slope , Globes (June 9, 2019) (in Hebrew), https://perma.cc/J6RE-R29P.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Penal Law, 5737-1977, § 144D 2 (a), SH 5737 No. 864 p. 226, as amended.

[16] Id. § 192.

[17] Prevention of Sexual Harassment Law, 5758-1998, §§ 2-3 & 5-6, SH 5758 No. 1661 p. 166, as amended.

[18] Id. § 3.

[19] Computers Law, 5755-1995, § 3(a), SH 5755 No. 1534 p. 366.

[20] Defamation Law, 5725-1965, § 1, SH 5725 No. 464 p. 240.

[21] Id. § 2(a).

[22] Id. § 2(b).

[23] Id. §§ 6-12.

[24] Protection of Privacy Law, 5741-1981, SH 5751 No. 1011 p. 128, as amended (Privacy Protection Authority unofficial translation), https://perma.cc/LYF8-UNF9.

[25] Id. § 2(1) & (4).

[26] Id. § 2(11).

[27] Id. § 3.

[28] Id. § 5.

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Last Updated: 12/16/2019