Index relies entirely on the support of donors and readers to do its work.
Help us keep amplifying censored voices today.
When the most distinguished former chair of Israel’s Supreme Court, the 86-year-old Holocaust survivor Aharon Barak, said that he would go before a “firing squad” if it would help prevent what he sees as an existential threat to his country’s democracy, it’s a safe bet he was talking about something momentous.
Barak’s January denunciation of the attempt by Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to neuter the Court was just part of what has brought many tens of thousands of Israeli citizens out in unprecedented protests across the country. An impressive array of judicial, political, ex-military and intelligence leaders have warned that Netanyahu’s programme is leading Israel on a path akin to that of authoritarian governments like Hungary and Poland at best, and dictatorship and “fascism” at worst.
The coalition formed on 29 December is easily the most right wing in Israel’s history and includes in key Cabinet posts two religious and avowedly extreme and anti-Arab supremacists, Bezalal Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, both determined that Israel should annex the occupied West Bank. Their appointment adds a volatile new element to a conflict in which 14 Israelis and 70 Palestinians have been killed this year alone.
But it is the “reforms” to the Supreme Court drawn up by Netanyahu’s justice minister Yariv Levin which, opposed by an Israeli majority in opinion polls, have unleashed a wave of outrage on the streets. These include clauses heavily curbing judicial review, removing the criterion of “reasonableness” by which it can judge government decisions, for appointments of the Court to fall under the direct control of the government, and for judgements ruling that a government decision in unlawful or conflicts with semi-constitutional Basic Laws to be overruled by a simple majority in the Knesset (parliament).
The Court is hardly the “overmighty” bastion of liberalism depicted by its critics. Last year, for example, it approved the planned eviction of 1000 southern West Bank Palestinians from their homes purportedly to make way for an Israeli military firing zone. But it remains the last hope for individuals, Jewish or Arab, fighting against unjust decisions, whether legal or administrative. What’s more in Israel’s single parliamentary chamber system the Court is the only check and balance on the executive and the Knesset majority it invariably commands.
The changes to the Court should not be seen in isolation from other measures planned or already in various stages of enactment or proposal. These include allowing the death penalty – unused since the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s execution in 1962 – for Palestinian terrorists, and the power to deprive Arab—though not Jewish—terrorists of residency as well as citizenship. Fears of secular Israelis have been fuelled by calls from ultra-orthodox parties for an end to the ban on segregation of men and women at publicly funded events, while Smotrich has even called for the banning of Arab political parties, representing nearly 20% of the Israeli population. Already under way is a bill to curb the law officers’ power to declare the prime minister unfit to rule. Many Israelis also see the wider judicial reforms partly as an attempt by Netanyahu to escape the possible consequences of his ongoing trial on three corruption charges.
The Netanyahu coalition agreement provides for prohibitively high taxation of Israeli civil-society organisations, several defending Palestinian human rights, which draw funding from mainly European governments, including Britain’s. The measure will not mostly apply to the many right-wing, pro-government advocacy groups because they are mainly funded by rich individuals, especially in the USA.
There has not yet been any legislative attack on Israel’s still fairly vibrant press, albeit in a market dominated by the pro-Netanyahu freesheet Israel Hayom. But writing after the election last October Aluf Benn, editor of the liberal newspaper Haaretz, pointed out that existing legislation for ordering a state of emergency lays down powers for a press clampdown, and suggested that Netanyahu, Smotrich and Ben Gvir wanted a state “in which criticising the government or replacing it will only be a pipe dream.”
In a sense, however, the changes to the Supreme Court are the programme’s hinge, by severely weakening its right to strike down any of these or other measures because, say, they do not conform with the 1992 Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty. Indeed if so far vain attempts by Israel’s President Isaac Herzog fail to secure a compromise on the changes, and the government passes the Court legislation by the end of March as it intends, a major stand-off between it and the Court is in prospect, leaving much of Israel—perhaps even including senior Army figures—having to choose between its recognition of an elected government and its respect for the law as it has prevailed since the state’s foundation 75 years ago.
This week I was planning to write about the Queen’s speech, delivered this week by HRH Prince Charles, as the British Parliament began its new parliamentary session and the Government outlined it parliamentary priorities. There are now six proposed pieces of legislation by the British Government that will impact our collective rights to both freedom of expression and privacy in the United Kingdom. But my views on the ideological incoherence of the Government’s approach to freedom of expression will have to wait until next week.
Because today we mourn the death of another journalist. On Wednesday, Shireen Abu Akleh, a well-known and well regarded Palestinian-American journalist was killed while doing her job in Jenin.
According to Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) Shireen is the 17th journalist to have been killed in the line of duty in 2022. Index has fought to defend the rights of journalists for over fifty years. Every attack on a journalist is an effort to stop people speaking truth to power. It’s an attempt to quash dissent and to impose a single world view. And every death seeks to silence not just the voice of journalists but through them the voices of all of us. We cannot allow those who seek to repress their populations to win.
Today our thoughts and prayers are with Shireen’s family and loved ones. And as much as we mourn her today, we remember and honour the work and sacrifices made by her, her family and the sixteen other journalists who have lost their lives in 2022.
6 January – John Wesley Amady, Haiti
6 January – Wilguens Louis-Saint, Haiti
9 January – Pu Tuidim, Myanmar
17 January – Alfonso Margarito Martinez Esquivel, Mexico
5 February – Rohit Biswal, India
9 February – Evariste Djailoramdji, Chad
10 February – Heber Lopez Vasquez, Mexico
23 February – Maximilien Lazard, Haiti
1 March – Yevhenii Sakun, Ukraine
13 March – Brent Renaud, Ukraine
13 March-1 April – Maks Levin, Ukraine
14 March – Oleksandra Kuvshynova, Ukraine
14 March – Pierre Zakrzewski, Ukraine
15 March – Armando Linares Lopez, Mexico
23 March – Oksana Baulina, Ukraine
Late March – 2 April – Mantas Kvedaravicius, Ukraine
11 May – Shireen Abu Akleh, Occupied Palestinian Territory
Each of these brave journalists needs to be remembered and celebrated for their work and their sacrifice. And their families need and deserve both the truth and, most importantly, justice.
I regularly start my weekly blog with the exclamation “there is just too much news!” Too much horror and heartbreak and this week the assertion is all too true.
Russia has invaded a sovereign country and daily we are seeing evidence of war crimes on the continent of Europe; China is arresting yet more democracy activists on the flimsiest of excuses; there have been bombings targeting schools in Afghanistan; a neo-fascist is, yet again, in the final run-off in the French Presidential elections; there are riots in Sweden against the far-right with dozens hurt; people are starving in Shanghai under Covid-19 restrictions; there is active conflict again in Jerusalem, with over 150 Palestinians hurt in clashes after a series of terror attacks targeting Israelis in recent weeks; another video of a black man being fatally shot by the police has emerged in the US – Patrick Lyoya was killed, while being held on the ground, defenceless, on 14 April and riots have followed in Michigan.
Our team at Index is working on every one of these news stories. We work with people on the ground, and we commission dissidents and writers, in country, to give us a first-hand account. In the twenty-first century we can speak to people in every corner of the globe, as events are happening, because of the internet and the social media platforms which afford us all a level of protection because of end-to-end encryption. We work with people on the ground who would be arrested, tortured, or even killed because they want to share their experiences with the world. They want the world to know what is happening to them and to their communities. They are on the frontline in the perpetual fight for our democratic right to freedom of expression. They are vulnerable because of who they are and what they want to share with us, whether that’s their writings, their opinions or their art.
They are brave and inspirational and determined to stand up for what is right. For as long as they want to tell their stories there is a moral onus for us to listen to them.
Which brings me to the current proposals to regulate our online lives currently being progressed in the European Union and in the United Kingdom. In Europe, today (Friday) the final negotiations on the substance of the Digital Services Act are underway and, in the UK, the Online Safety Bill began its parliamentary journey on Tuesday. Index is working actively with partners to try and mitigate the worst aspects of both pieces of legislation and we were in Brussels this week to make the case for additional protections for freedom of speech. Our overriding goal is to make sure that our access to those brave dissidents is protected and that our rights to discuss the detail of these horrors are protected. To make sure that while legislators are trying to ‘protect’ us online they don’t end up inadvertently silencing us.
Index advocates for free expression within the protections afforded to us by the European Convention on Human Rights. There is no right not be offended. There is no right not to see things online, or in real life, that will upset you. Of course, we all want to protect each other from seeing the worst aspects of human life – that’s an admirable aspiration but it isn’t the grounds for making new law. In fact, it’s the exact opposite – legally we have protected freedom of expression, it’s a fundamental right. I have written before about our concerns regarding online regulation and in the coming months I’ll be writing extensively on it – but we start with the basic principle – what is legal to say should be legal to type. And that should be the case whatever any new legislation seeks to amend.