Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Friday morning said the premier would work to cancel a controversial clause, approved by the Knesset in a late-night session Wednesday, barring journalists from the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) from expressing their opinions on-air.
“The prime minister believes that the ethical rules for journalists do not need to be enshrined in the primary legislation, and decided to bring an amendment to the clause,” a statement from his office said, following a public outcry.
According to Channel 2, the Knesset could vote on Netanyahu’s change to the law as soon as Monday.
“The public broadcasts must refrain from one-sidedness, prejudice, from expressing personal opinions, from grading and labeling, from ignoring facts or adapting them selectively in a way that is not in line with their news value,” reads the clause, added by United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael Eichler.
The article applies to the current broadcaster, which is set to be shuttered in March 2016, and not to the new corporation that is due to replace it.
Minutes before the prime minister’s announcement, Science Minister Ofir Akunis (Likud), who is responsible for the state broadcasting legislation, released a statement defending the clause.
In a Facebook post, Akunis maintained the law was designed to increase journalistic objectivity.
“It’s possible the clause was not formulated clearly and sharply enough,” he wrote. “It’s possible that it needs clarification. So here is the clarification: No one is trying to silence [the media], quite the contrary.”
Fifteen Israeli diplomatic correspondents had penned a letter to Netanyahu on Thursday night urging him to cancel the offending clause, which was part of an amendment to a law mandating the formation of a new public broadcasting body.
In the letter, the 15 reporters maintain that the law “seriously compromises the journalistic freedom of the state broadcaster.
“Since the IBA is a very dominant media outlet, this clause therefore significantly harms the journalistic freedom and freedom of expression in Israel,” they wrote.
While stressing that the issue was not linked to a particular political camp, the letter noted that the freedom to express one’s opinions is the “lifeblood of democracy.
“We expect that, as communications minister, and as prime minister, you express your opinion publicly on the matter. From ongoing coverage of your candidacy as prime minister over the years, we have no doubt you are not interested in a public broadcaster that is submissive, and that you believe, as we do, that freedom of the press is one of the bedrocks of an open and democratic society,” the letter added.
Signatories to the letter included The Times of Israel’s Raphael Ahren, Haaretz’s Barak Ravid, Walla’s Amir Tibon, Channel 2’s Udi Segal, and Yedioth Ahronoth’s Itamar Eichner, among others. Shlomo Cesana, the diplomatic correspondent for the staunchly pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily, also signed the letter.
Copies of the letter were also sent to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, President Reuven Rivlin, and Akunis.
The Israel Press Council urged parliament on Thursday to cancel the law, saying it violates free speech.
Meanwhile, the state comptroller said he would investigate the government’s conduct in abolishing the IBA and replacing it with a new state broadcasting corporation.
Speaking to Channel 2 TV on Thursday afternoon, Eichler — himself a former journalist — clarified that reporters would be allowed to express their opinions if they openly announce their political leanings. Employees of the state broadcaster are public servants whose salaries are paid from the public purse and must act accordingly, he said. The lawmaker added that the government would draft ethical guidelines for the new broadcasting body.
Akunis had said the law only applies to newscasts.
Critics of the controversial dismantlement of the IBA have charged that Netanyahu, who holds the communications portfolio, was seeking to turn the media conglomerate into a political mouthpiece. The move has also come under fire for the anticipated layoffs of most of the broadcaster’s employees.
The Knesset early Thursday morning ratified the amendment to the broadcasting law, with 25 lawmakers approving it and 18 voting against.
Earlier this week — following intense opposition from trade unions and coalition lawmakers — the government agreed to defang the law, which would have left 430 Israel Broadcasting Authority workers jobless.
However, Eichler’s clause appears to have been inserted at the last moment, avoiding the scrutiny and criticism of opposition lawmakers and IBA workers until after the amendment was passed.
In negotiations with the Histadrut labor union, authorities agreed to shelve a clause in the new public broadcasting bill that calls on the state broadcaster to immediately begin slashing NIS 10 million from its budget every month. The move effectively saved the 430 jobs, while the government and the Histadrut agree to settle a long-planned overhaul of the service.
In addition, authorities agreed to halt any planned future layoffs until the IBA — whose fate remains unclear — is either reorganized or shuttered. Negotiations with the Histadrut will now proceed to determine how many employees will be fired and how many will continue to work in the new broadcasting company.
Last year, the Knesset approved legislation to abolish the IBA and replace it with a new public entity. The current staff of some 1,500 is expected to be reduced to some 700.
The bill’s sponsor, then-communications minister Gilad Erdan, explained at the time that the need for the change stemmed from the broadcast authority becoming increasingly unnecessary. Erdan said a new public entity would save money and do away with the unpopular television tax.
The IBA was established in 1948 and held a monopoly on TV and radio broadcasting in Israel until the 1990s.
Since 1965, any Israeli household with a television set was obligated to pay an annual television tax, which helped fund the IBA. Today, the tax stands at NIS 345 ($90) per year. The IBA strictly enforced this rule, ignoring pleas from TV owners who did not use the IBA’s services or were not connected to any television service whatsoever. The amendment approved early Thursday also abolished the TV tax retroactively from January 2015.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.