New Fears Of Erosion Of Press Freedoms

New Fears Of Erosion Of Press Freedoms

Controversy over public broadcasting corporation raising questions about prime minister’s commitment to democracy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under fire for shuttering the news division of the revamped public broadcasting corporation. The Israeli media, he says, is too negative. Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under fire for shuttering the news division of the revamped public broadcasting corporation. The Israeli media, he says, is too negative. Getty Images

Tel Aviv — It’s known in Israel simply as “hataagid,” Hebrew for “the corporation.”

Over the last month, this corporation has been at the center of a political controversy in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to dissolve parliament and hold elections.

Few Israelis understand what the corporation exactly is and why it’s become so controversial. But journalists and legal experts worry that its fate will result in a major erosion of press freedom in Israel.

“Hataagid” is the nickname for Israel’s new corporation for public broadcasting. Created by a reform passed by the Knesset in 2014, it was established to replace the decades-old Israel Broadcast Authority, which has suffered for years from declining ratings, bloated salaries, meddling politicians, commercial competition and powerful unions.

The new public broadcast corporation was supposed to be an attempt to wipe the slate clean in order to reinvigorate programming and reporting on Israel Radio and Channel 1, Israel’s public television station. For the first time, management of the station was supposed to be independent.   

Though the prime minister initially had supported the reform, over the last year Netanyahu did an about-face. After delaying the start of broadcasts by a half-year to April 30, last month the prime minister threatened to dissolve the parliament and hold new elections if the new corporation wasn’t dissolved.

Last week, Netanyahu struck a deal with Israel’s finance minister to shutter the broadcast corporation’s news division and fire some 160 journalists. The move unleashed a protest over the weekend of several hundred reporters outside the government headquarters in Tel Aviv.   

“The parliament decided to open a new public broadcaster for the people. It was done in a thorough, orderly, fair and logical process,” said Shaul Amsterdamsky, an economics editor at the new corporation, at a demonstration on the steps of the government headquarters Saturday evening. “But now, a moment before it’s supposed to happen, the prime minister comes and, because of a few journalists that look bad to him, decides to close down this [station].

“The only thing that interests the prime minister,” Amsterdamsky continued, “is that there should be one fewer media outlet that will criticize him. In the prime minister’s vision … there will be many media outlets that will see exactly the same thing.”

Experts say that the decision to shutter the news department of the public broadcast corporation still has some hurdles to pass. On Monday, the leader of Israel’s workers’ union umbrella organization threatened a public-sector strike if the government didn’t reconsider the dismissal of the journalists from the corporation. Two petitions against the move were submitted to Israel’s high court. And the Knesset will need to pass a revised law to shutter the news division.

At the same demonstration, Matan Hodorov, an economics commentator for Channel 10, said that while public broadcasting is a foundation of democracy, it could end up as a “dangerous propaganda tool” if it is controlled by politicians.

“This is not about right or left. It’s not about ultra-Orthodox or secular. It’s control,” he said. “That’s the only thing that interests the government when it comes to managing the Israeli media.”

What does the potential shuttering of the new public broadcaster signal for Israeli press freedoms and the country’s democracy? In a statement protesting the decision, the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) warned that last-minute shelving of the reform would “bring public broadcasting to its knees” and had harmed the democratic functioning of the government.

The original reform was supposed to set up a corporation whose executives could function independently of political meddling that crippled the old broadcast authority. Now, the prime minister is signaling that he wants to keep a tight rein on public broadcasting, the institute warned.

“Politicians, over the years, were always hungry to have more control over public media, but in this case, it’s more troubling,” said Mordechai Kremnitzer, a Hebrew University constitutional law scholar, in a podcast produced by the IDI. “I think we see here an intolerance toward criticism. … This approach is something that isn’t particular to Israel — we see similar phenomena in other countries.”

After days of criticism over the deal, the prime minister finally spoke up on Monday and declared that Israel’s news media is free and would remain free. The problem, he said, is that Israel’s media is too much of a downer.

“But I’ll tell you what I see in the media. It’s not diverse enough. It doesn’t reflect the feelings of the public. There is an industry of despondency. … When they see a country collapsing and unravelling, I see Israel rising as a world power.”

Long before President Donald Trump began describing news outlets as the enemy and their reports as “fake news,” Israel’s prime minister has been butting heads with local media outlets and individual journalists. The Israeli prime minister blamed hostile coverage of his first administration two decades ago for his failed attempt at re-election in 1999.

Netanyahu dissolved his government in 2014 and called for a snap election in order to bury a bill supported by some coalition partners to weaken Israel Hayom, a freebie tabloid that provides sympathetic coverage to Netanyahu and is bankrolled by U.S. casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. In recent months, the prime minister has assailed individual investigative journalists as “bolshevik,” “extreme leftists” who try to “brainwash the Israelis.”

He has taken to Facebook to call out individual journalists following unflattering investigations into his administration and his family.

In a controversial commercial from the 2015 election campaign, Netanyahu bragged that his reform of public broadcasting had defeated IBA union members in the same way he had confronted Hamas. Recordings of secret meetings with Amnon Mozes, the publisher of Yediot Achronot, the largest paid tabloid, are at the center of a police investigation into whether an offer by Netanyahu to pass legislation curbing Israel Hayom in return for more favorable coverage in the newspaper constituted an act of bribery.

For all those reasons, it has become a cliché in Israel to say that Netanyahu is “obsessed” with the media.     

Israel’s commercial news outlets have been struggling in recent years as well. In the country’s tiny Hebrew-language market for news, it’s harder to stay afloat. Freedom House, a press freedom monitoring group, last year downgraded its rating of Israel’s media environment to “partly free” from “free” because the freebie Israel Hayom has made it more difficult for newspapers to sell and because of Netanyahu’s insistence of keeping control over Israel’s communications ministry for himself.

Gadi Wolsfeld, a professor of political science and media at Hebrew University, said there’s a reason for the prime minister’s obsession: “Certainly the press doesn’t like him and considers him to be corrupt. He would like to have different coverage,” he said.

Leaving the current broadcast authority in place would continue to erode the press freedom and be a waste of money, he said. “It would be a pity if they continue to have news from a station that long ago passed its prime, and can’t attract [an audience],” he said.

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