UN Special Rapporteur Reports on Status of Freedom of Speech in Israel

JERUSALEM – As part of the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Mr. Frank La Rue visited Israel and met on December 14 with Prof. Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor. During the meeting, Prof. Steinberg detailed Israel’s democratic processes, including the protections provided for minority citizens and its robust civil society and free press, and provided analysis on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the ongoing debate regarding NGO funding.

“A concerted political campaign by a narrow group of powerful NGOs uses slogans claiming ‘anti-democratic behavior’ to intimidate critics,” Steinberg said. “This campaign, including the denunciation of the very discussion of preliminary legislative proposals as entirely illegitimate, seeks to prevent this political debate. Partisan allegations from NGOs using double standards should not be taken at face value; in a democracy, groups claiming to speak in the name of human rights have no immunity from criticism and public debate.”

Steinberg’s discussion with Mr. La Rue emphasized the need for NGOs to refrain from using terms like “McCarthyite” or claiming that criticism of them is “undemocratic.” Steinberg added that there is no censorship of Israeli civil society activities.  “Critical reports of the government issued by NGOs such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), B’Tselem, Yesh Din, Adalah, Mossawa, and many others receive extensive press attention in Israel, including from the government-owned and army-operated media.”

The context, Steinberg noted, in which Israel operates – where hundreds of political advocacy NGOs receive tens of millions of euros from European governments in secretive processes – is unique and is driving the current conversation about NGO funding.

“The recent proposed legislation about NGO funding is problematic,” Steinberg noted, “but this is a healthy and important discussion. Citizens and MKs recognize that the current system is broken, and that there is a need to develop mechanisms to hold NGOs and their government funders accountable.”

Steinberg discussed the political warfare against Israel, which often drives allegation of human rights violations against Israel. He urged the Special Rapporteur to “subject accusations from organizations and individuals regarding the state of freedom of expression in Israel to careful scrutiny and independent verification, and to avoid erasing the context of these allegations.”

As an example of Israel’s strength of democracy, Steinberg cited the peaceful nature of the social protests throughout summer 2011.

“During the ‘Arab Spring,’ where thousands were murdered at the hands of their own governments, protestors in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and elsewhere were quoted as taking inspiration from the peaceful social protests that took place during the summer in Israel. This highlights the Israeli commitment to free expression.”

Prof. Steinberg’s full statement presented to Special Rapporteur Mr. Frank La Rue.