Media Matters

Jewish Light Editorial

Is the debate going on this week in the Knesset about free speech or money? If you’re Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or one of his political allies, it’s the latter. On the other hand, if you’re Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon, the former characterization appears to be the prism of choice.

Netanyahu is proposing to shut down the new Israel Broadcasting Corporation (IBC) and its proposed new television station KAN — a successor of sorts to the existing Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), which was funded by license fees rather than the new entity’s reliance on the general governmental budget.  He claims the new authority would cost too much in government resources to operate, even though Kahlon and the Finance Ministry say the new IBC would cost much less to run that its predecessor.

But enough of the bickering — how did we get here, and why is this the stuff of the opening of Knesset season, given all the issues confronting Israeli society?

Netanyahu has long been known to be sensitive to media portrayals of himself, his coalition and the state itself. In fact, he has kept the Communications Ministry under his own portfolio in the current coalition government.

Why, though? While the new IBC was supposed to reduce governmental influence in public broadcasting, at least some perceived anti-coalition, anti-government bias has manifest in the leadership of, and writers for, the  new entity. Bibi’s defenders would say that they (and he) are tired of the influence that far-left voices, in particular those that are sanctioned or supported by foreign powers, can exert over public affairs and policy in Israel.

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David Bitan, chairman of Netanyahu’s Likud party stated this view. “I don’t think public broadcasting should be turned over to people who genuinely hate the prime minister and the Likud,” said as he was quoted in Bloomberg News.

The story, as you would expect, is not quite the same from Bibi’s opponents. They argue that a free and open media is critical, and that public broadcasting in particular can quickly turn into an apologist for the government. For instance, this from President Reuven Rivlin, in the same publication: “Those in favor of a public broadcasting authority cannot turn it into a trumpet of the commissars,” Rivlin said, without naming names. “Those who want a public broadcasting authority must ensure that it is unbiased across the party divides.”

While the current battle is over public broadcasting, opinions have played out in privately-owned media proxies for both Netanyahu and the opposition, and the views on this issue reflect that ongoing stress on the street. Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom has defended the prime minister’s position, while Yedioth Ahronoth has chimed in from the other corner.

In the meantime, the many Israelis that have been hired to work for the new authority are waiting to see if their jobs will fall prey to the highly politicized issue. 

From our perspective, it’s hard not to imagine there being a political agenda, at least in part, from Netanyahu’s side. After all, there is virtually always a political agenda from Netanyahu’s side. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that his opponents are necessarily right on this or other issues; but it does mean that the prime minister has survived, not to mention garnered the leadership helm four times, on the basis of his very substantial political acuity. 

On the other hand, there was already a dread concern among some that the old IBA was being disbanded for the purpose of creating a vehicle for more governmental messaging and control. So in the context of that perception, a current battle that appears to be destroying the new entity before it gets going, and replacing it with a “new and improved” version of the previous one, seems to support the contention of the opponents of Netanyahu’s current move.

We really are concerned about this issue, which may seem esoteric on its face but could hold serious consequences for the future. If the government-funded entity IBA-KAN drifts in some perilous directions envisioned by opponents of IBC’s disbanding, we could see the dark vision that Rivlin suggests — the use of a government-controlled media entity to suppress opposing viewpoints and to promote a good-and-rosy public relations view of everything governmental (or at least everything ruling-coalition).

There are compromises being discussed as we go to press that could minimize some of the concerns of clampdowns under a revived IBC, or via another methodology. We sure hope that a consensus can be reached on a solution that will allow the funded public broadcasting organization, whatever form it takes, to provide free and myriad views of public affairs in Israel. With that result, citizens can be well informed and make up their own minds about the issues of the day.

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