The contentious bill to outlaw free newspapers passed its reading in the Knesset by a vote of 43 to 23 on Wednesday.
Widely regarded as an attempt to muzzle the pro-Netanyahu Yisrael Hayom, which is distributed without charge, opponents charge that it tramples on free speech. But its supporters say that it is designed to ensure a level playing field for all newspapers, regardless of political orientation.
“This is a disgrace to the Knesset,” said Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu after the voting. He is expected to try to block it when it goes back to committee prior to a second and third reading and final vote in the plenum.
In a statement issued afterwards, Yisrael Hayom expressed agreement: “We are not the losers, but the Knesset [is], whose vote again demonstrated how disconnected it is from public sentiment.”
“This is a day of shame and disgrace for those members of Knesset who turned their backs on the will of the public and of their voters, and preferred to serve extraneous interests,” referring to rival publications that have suffered from the competition.
Yisrael Hayom, bankrolled by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, is now the country’s No. 1 daily.However, in a speech in the plenum, the bill’s sponsor, Labor MK Eitan Cabel, denied that the law targets any particular newspaper.
“I am not looking to close the paper [Yisrael Hayom] but rather to prevent the closure of the rest of the newspapers,” Cabel said. “That paper will continue to be published after the law comes into effect, and can even be sold for a symbolic price.”
The bill would ban distribution of a free daily newspaper that is published six days a week and has at least 30 pages on weekdays and 100 pages in its weekend edition. The bill allows free distribution only for six months.
According to the preamble, its aim is to prevent the economic collapse of the print newspaper industry. “The market must again function in fair and democratic, competitive conditions,” the bill states, and continues, “This bill does not ask that the government should provide any financial support whatsoever, but seeks to create conditions that will make possible fair competition in the print newspaper market.”