Israeli MPs have backed the first stage of a controversial bill which would significantly increase the compensation for libel claims, in a move critics say will seriously harm freedom of the press.
In a vote held late on Monday, MPs in the 120-member Knesset approved by 42-31 the first reading of a draft law which would dramatically increase the penalty for "defamatory" articles which appear in the press, on a radio or television broadcast, or even on Facebook.
In its current form, the bill would increase sixfold the damages resulting from a libel suit -- to a maximum of 300,000 shekels ($80,000/60,000 euros) -- without any need for the complainant to prove they suffered actual harm.
And if the reporter or journalist failed to include a response by the injured party in the article, the fine could be raised to as much as 1.5 million shekels ($400,000/300,000 euros).
Opponents of the vote took to the streets of Tel Aviv Tuesday evening to protest against the bill and other recent "anti-democratic legislation," an AFP correspondent said.
Organisers said 5,000 people took part in the rally waving Israeli and red flags, and carrying banners that read: "The Right will not silence us" as well as "no rights, no problems."
Many protesters also symbolically taped their mouths shut. Police say less than 1,000 people took part in the protest.
Speakers at the rally, organised by Peace Now and other left-wing groups, condemned the "wave of McCarthyism" and what they called an attack against the foundation of Israeli democracy.
Opponents describe the bill, which must now be put to a second and third reading before passing into law, as an anti-democratic move aimed at stifling criticism of public figures which would seriously impede the culture of investigative reporting.
"If passed in second and third readings by the Knesset, the legislation ... would seriously intimidate journalists, editors and publishers," an editorial in the right-leaning Jerusalem Post said on Tuesday.
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And the right-wing nationalist daily Makor Rishon said if it were passed into law, it would would "all but hermetically seal journalists' ability to conduct investigative reports and will prevent, in many cases, any real ability of the media to fight instances of governmental injustice and corruption."
The bill was also condemned by the Tel Aviv-based Foreign Press Association (FPA) and the International Press Institute, whose headquarters are in Vienna.
"This legislation is a clear attempt to intimidate and stifle the country’s media," the FPA said in a statement.
"We urge the prime minister, his cabinet and the Knesset to back down from these measures, stand up in support of democracy and free speech, and cancel this bill immediately."
The International Press Institute warned that should the bill become law, it could "chill" the culture of investigative reporting in Israel.
"We urge the Israeli parliament to revise the Defamation Prohibition Law, which we fear would stifle free expression in Israel where, until now, Israeli journalists have enjoyed a level of press freedom above and beyond that of most of their colleagues in the region," it said.
"While media houses must be held accountable for their reporting, a penalty increase of this dimension for libel could discourage media from holding public figures accountable, which is their core duty."
The draft legislation was tabled by two MPs, one from the ruling Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and another from Kadima, the centre-right opposition party.
Both Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who heads the centrist Independence party, voted in favour and the government imposed coalition discipline, compelling all its members to support the bill.
In a separate move, MPs on Monday also passed by 45 to 35 the first reading of a bill aimed at changing the composition of the panel that selects Supreme Court justices, which critics say is an attempt to bring right-leaning judges into the court.