Amid uproar about Knesset Channel firings over leaked tape, MK calls for boycott

Smotrich urges other lawmakers to join him in refusing to talk to station after it dismisses three workers for releasing video of MK Ofer Shelah’s meltdown

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Screen capture from video of MK Ofer Shelah, Yesh Atid-Telem, left, with his back to the camera during an altercation while he was giving an interview to the Knesset Channel, May 2020. (Ynet)
Screen capture from video of MK Ofer Shelah, Yesh Atid-Telem, left, with his back to the camera during an altercation while he was giving an interview to the Knesset Channel, May 2020. (Ynet)

A Knesset member on Thursday called on his fellow lawmakers to boycott the Knesset’s official channel after it fired three workers in connection with leaked footage of another MK shouting at newscasters and then storming out of a studio interview.

The dismissals drew outrage in the media establishment, with some suggesting they were a symptom of tensions between workers and management at the station.

Opposition MK Bezalel Smotrich, of the national-religious Yamina alliance, said he would no longer give interviews to the Knesset Channel.

The channel dismissed the three workers on Wednesday following a probe into who had leaked footage from an interview with opposition MK Ofer Shelah that was supposed to have been shelved, but was broadcast by the Ynet website earlier this week. In the clip, Shelah can be seen storming off the set after berating two presenters for questioning him about his alleged criticism of Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz in the past.

Knesset Channel management ordered an investigation, demanding that all those who may have had access to the clip undergo a lie detector test, after which two women and one man were fired. According to Hebrew media reports, one of those dismissed was an editor who was reportedly fired for refusing to tell managers who had leaked the video, and refusing to take the polygraph test.

The editor filed a complaint with the Labor Court, and the Union of Journalists in Israel requested to join in the suit.

In a statement, Yair Tarchitsky, chairman of the Union of Journalists in Israel, said, “The channel has become a horror show over the past week… It is unacceptable that a media organization behave like this.”

A year ago the fired editor complained of sexual harassment at the Knesset Channel, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

She was identified in other media reports and on social media by other journalists as Yehudit Agassi-Damari.

Of the other two workers dismissed, one was the source of the leak, media reported.

Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich in Jerusalem on May 18 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Firing the workers just because they refused to inform on whoever leaked the video of MK Ofir Shelah’s meltdown is unacceptable,” Smotrich tweeted Thursday. “In this situation, I cannot allow myself to continue to be interviewed by the channel.”

He called on other lawmakers to join him in this until the channel’s management reverses its decision.

Shelah, a former journalist, also came out against the firings.

“I had nothing to do with the probe of workers at the Knesset Channel and, of course, not their firing, which I read about in the media,” he tweeted.

Shelah indicated that, given the dire situation of the economy and the job market following the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown, “I think there is a need to reconsider the firing of people at a time of crisis such as this. They can, and should, be given another chance.”

A number of Israeli journalists expressed concern at the firings. Union chief Tarchitsky sent a letter Wednesday to Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin asking him to look into the dismissals, The Marker reported.

The letter said the “punitive measures taken by the channel are disproportionate, and not acceptable to the union, and certainly not to the media establishment. There is concern that the use of a lie detector test was intended to sow fear among the workers. Your involvement is needed.”

According to The Marker there is contention between senior management and workers at the channel.

Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah attends a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Channel 12’s political analyst Amit Segal appeared to be of the view that there was more to the firings than the leaked video, tweeting Wednesday, “Shelah was not connected to the demands for dismissal. They took advantage of the incident.”

In another tweet he wrote, “Still unable to calm down from the incident at the Knesset Channel.”

“Our public funds are being used for lie detector tests for journalists,” he continued. “This is not what a media outlet looks like, this is intimidation.”

The Knesset channel said in a statement Wednesday, “The workers ended their employment with the Knesset channel due to serious incidents that led to a crisis of trust with them, and led to the termination of their employment.”

The channel said the action taken was justifiable and did not breach the workers’ rights.

During the interview with Shelah, which was recorded last month, the Yesh Atid party lawmaker was asked about claims from within Blue and White that he had criticized party leader Defense Minister Benny Gantz before the two parties split over entering a unity government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Whereas Blue and White joined the government, its alliance partners Yesh Atid-Telem entered the opposition.

Shelah rejected the accusation of criticism and warned presenters Moshe Glassner and Avi Blum to not go any further or they would face a lawsuit. Rising from his chair to end the interview, he shouted at them, calling one a “nothing” for having the audacity to ask him about something that is “a complete lie.”

As studio crew rushed to intervene, Shelah said, “I am finished being interviewed by you, you piece of nothing,” before storming off.

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