Today marks World Press Freedom Day, an annual event first enacted by the UN Security Council in 1993 to draw attention to violations of press freedom around the globe and to support journalists under fire.  As part of the commemoration, last week Freedom House released its 2016 Freedom of the Press report.   This year’s report made headlines both in and outside Israel by downgrading Israel from a ranking of “free” to “partly free”.  The report cites the undue influence of pro-Netanyahu billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom, a problem with ads (some government-funded) disguised as news stories, and issues with Netanyahu retaining the communications portfolio for himself.

Many have jumped to Israel’s defense, arguing that the report is biased against the right or that Freedom House has finally shown its true anti-Israel colorsOthers have argued that the report does not go far enough in calling out Israel’s violations of freedom of expression, specifically referencing Israel’s treatment of Palestinian journalists.  In reality, claims of anti-Israel bias within Freedom House are unfounded, but the report may be giving too much credit to the ability of Israel Hayom to crowd out the rest of the vibrant and varied Israeli media sector.   Regardless, the report and its timing are highly significant because they are just the latest in a growing trend of international condemnation of Israel’s seemingly un-democratic behavior.

Shortly before the Freedom House report release, the State Department released its annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (HRR). The report, which evaluates each country’s protection or violation of a standard set of human rights, took particular aim this year at the closing space for civil society across the globe. Not surprisingly, the Middle East did not fare well on this point, with one exception.  That exception was not Israel – it was Tunisia.

Throughout most of the history of the HRR, Israel has outperformed its neighbors. While Israel has been taken to task for a variety of human rights abuses throughout the years, in the specific area of government attitudes toward human rights NGOs (section 5 of the report), the language on Israel has always been remarkably positive, on par with other democracies worldwide and in stark contrast to the Middle East’s autocracies.  Over the past few years, since the 2011 revolution, Tunisia has joined Israel, demonstrating respect for both domestic and international human rights NGOs. As the 2015 Tunisia HRR states, “A wide variety of domestic and international human rights groups investigated and published without government restriction their findings on human rights cases. Government officials generally were cooperative and responsive to their views.”  The 2015 Israel HRR, by comparison, contains six lengthy paragraphs outlining the perceived attacks on human rights NGOs by the Israeli government.  This includes not only proposed changes to Israel’s regulation of NGOs that would add additional reporting requirements to NGOs that receive a majority of their funding from foreign governments, effectively branding such organizations as “foreign agents,” but also efforts by the government to discredit Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely’s threats to European capitals regarding their support for Israeli human rights organizations.

The description of Israel is not all bad.  Regarding human rights NGOs, the report notes that “government officials were generally cooperative, responsive to their views, and routinely invited NGOs critical of the government to participate in Knesset hearings on proposed legislation.”  But the fact that that statement must then be caveated with more than a page of accusations against the government does not speak well for Israel’s reputation as the “sole democracy” in the Middle East.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, the NGO bill’s main champion, has made two dubious arguments justifying the bill– first, that it is no different from the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a point that Lara Friedman deftly refuted.  Second, that this bill is necessary to protect the erosion of Israel’s legitimacy. What Shaked and her supporters are underestimating is the damage the bill itself is already doing to Israel’s legitimacy on the world stage as evidenced by the HRR.

One might argue that the impact of the HRR is minimal and is not taken seriously by foreign governments.  As a former Israel desk officer at the State Department responsible for human rights, I disagree.  While the findings of the HRR may not make it onto the front pages of Yediot Ahronot, Israeli government officials and NGO activists both read the report closely.  Inclusion of the NGO law in the report will send a loud signal to the Israeli government that the United States takes this issue seriously and is willing to make its concerns public.

US displeasure with the bill is not new. In January, US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who is beloved in Israel, met with Shaked to express his government’s concerns with the bill.  Following that meeting, the US Embassy in Tel Aviv released two statements, noting the bill’s potential “chilling effect on NGO activities.” This year’s HRR will remind the Israeli government that the United States is not going to back down on this issue.

The HRR is followed even more closely by the NGO community in Israel. NGO representatives often push for the inclusion of specific examples of human rights violations in the report to bring attention to them back home and abroad.  As several human rights organizations conveyed to me over the years, the Human Rights Report carries weight within their community and the inclusion of an issue (or village or person or event) provides fodder for the NGOs to advocate on that issue’s behalf.  By acknowledging the concerns of the human rights community regarding the NGO law, the HRR has provided them with the proof they need that the international community is paying attention to their plight.

Beyond the HRR

Shaked’s bill has caught the eye of others outside the State Department. The American Jewish Committee (AJC), an organization not known for its criticism of Israel, released a statement in January cautioning that the NGO law “poses as many risks as the problem itself, including the risk to Israel’s reputation as a confident and open society that has long been true democracy’s sole Middle East outpost.”

The AJC statement is correct.  The damage the bill is doing to Israel’s reputation far outweighs any supposed benefit.  One of the purported aims of the bill is to inform the Israeli public which foreign entity is promoting a specific political position. Does Israel really need a new NGO law to know that the United States views settlements as “illegitimate” or opposes efforts that undermine a two-state solution? Will forcing certain NGOs to declare their funders make clear that the EU is working to establish a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with land swaps?   No. These positions are public and well-known.

Israel needs to learn the lesson Secretary Kerry pointed to in the introduction to the 2015 HRR, “far from threatening the democratic process, a free press and open civil society are the release valve and life blood of a thriving democracy.”  The Israeli government need not fear the work of NGOs or the media.  Rather, Israel should reclaim its place above and beyond its neighbors in its respect for freedom of association and protection of dissenting voices.