Government proposal could see more political control over public broadcaster
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Government proposal could see more political control over public broadcaster

New plan would repeal key reforms aimed at ensuring editorial independence for state-regulated media outlets

Raoul Wootliff covers politics, corruption and crime for The Times of Israel.

A shopper stands in front of televisions broadcasting a speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an electronics shop in Jerusalem. (Abir Sultan/Flash90)
A shopper stands in front of televisions broadcasting a speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an electronics shop in Jerusalem. (Abir Sultan/Flash90)

Amid ongoing uncertainty over the future of Israel’s new public broadcasting company, the government is reportedly working on a proposal that would enable the institution’s long-delayed launch — but only in return for increased control over the country’s media landscape.

The proposal would repeal key reforms aimed at ensuring editorial independence for the new corporation and unite Israel’s three separate broadcasting authorities under a politically appointed oversight body, the Haaretz daily reported on Thursday.

In 2014, the Knesset passed wide-reaching legislation to close the ailing Israel Broadcasting Authority, which politicians at the time described as increasingly irrelevant and costly, and replace it with a new broadcasting corporation known in Hebrew as Kan. The reforms originally called for the establishment of a new broadcaster by March 31, 2016.

But facing determined efforts to scupper the new state-run media outlet by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Kan has seen its launch repeatedly delayed. It is currently set to begin next month.

Microphones and video cameras of Israeli media outlets set up for press conference. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Microphones and video cameras of Israeli media outlets set up for press conference. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Now, according to the report, the Communications Ministry is preparing a memorandum that would allow Kan to begin operations in April, but only if it is placed under a new oversight body responsible for media content and directly appointed by the political echelon.

The original reforms, advanced by then-communications minister Gilad Erdan (who is now public security minister), exempted Kan from government oversight rules that apply to most other public corporations, severely curtailing the ability of politicians to intervene in content and senior staff appointments.

The new memorandum is said to give the communications minister full authority to appoint the chair of the broadcaster’s governing council, who in would in turn be able to appoint nine members of the 11-member body. The last two members would be sitting government ministers, under the plan.

The current communications minister, Likud’s Tzachi Hanegbi, defended the new plan. “There’s this talk as though the only thing politicians want is to take more and more power,” he complained.

“The politicians appoint the chief of staff of the army, God forbid!” he said sarcastically in an interview with Israel Radio Thursday. “And the head of the Shin Bet [Israel’s domestic intelligence service], which defends our freedoms, and the head of the Mossad. Why can’t they appoint the head of a public media oversight body? Politicians are elected by the people, and if they don’t like them, the people know how to replace them. It’s called democracy.”

The newly built control room at the offices of the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, in Tel Aviv. August 29, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
The newly built control room at the offices of the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, in Tel Aviv. August 29, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The new council would also take over oversight for Israel’s commercial and cable-broadcasting media, which are currently regulated by institutions separate from the main broadcasting authority, creating one overarching government regulator for all broadcast media.

Likud officials have claimed that nixing the new corporation altogether would save the state some NIS 2.5 billion ($658 million) yearly, a figure later ridiculed by the Finance Ministry and Erdan. Critics from both the coalition and the opposition, however, say Netanyahu’s fear of the corporation’s political independence is the real reason for the delays in its launch.

The new proposal would return a great deal of power directly to the communications minister, a position held by Netanyahu himself until last month and one that he says he may take up again in three months.

Amid a High Court petition and a criminal investigation into his alleged collusion with major media outlets, Netanyahu resigned the post in February, appointing cohort Hanegbi instead, but saying the move was only temporary.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with MK Tzachi Hanegbi during a Likud party meeting in the Knesset on February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with MK Tzachi Hanegbi during a Likud party meeting in the Knesset on February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In November, amid growing opposition in the Knesset to his planned reversal of the reforms, Netanyahu postponed a vote to dismantle the broadcasting corporation, agreeing instead to establish a temporary committee with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to assess the issue.

The decision came following “Kahlon’s insistence that the budget for the public broadcaster not exceed the allocated funds,” a statement read.

Speaking at the Knesset Finance Committee on October 31, Kahlon said he was opposed to the costly flipflopping by the government over the new corporation, saying that billions of shekels would be wasted were it to be shut down.

Economy Minister Eli Cohen of Kulanu said Thursday that his party would oppose the latest proposals.

“The Kulanu party will not support damaging the independence of the media or any form of censorship,” he told Israel Radio.

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