Coalition again targets public broadcaster, 5 months after it reopened

Interior Minister Deri says shuttering it would save government billions of shekels; Netanyahu backs him

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

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri arrives for the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, October 15, 2017. (Alex Kolomoisky)
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri arrives for the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, October 15, 2017. (Alex Kolomoisky)

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri on Sunday suggested closing the Kan public broadcasting corporation just five months after it launched, saying it could save the state billions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backed the idea.

The suggestion came after the government spent hundreds of millions of shekels to shut the existing public broadcaster and open a new one in an attempted reform amid a long and acrimonious political debate over the role of the institution.

During Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Deri called for closing down Kan as a way of saving some NIS 500 million ($142 million) annually, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement. Netanyahu supports the idea and will raise it with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon as a part of the 2019 budget negotiations, the statement said.

Several ministers reportedly supported the move, with only Kahlon opposed.

Netanyahu and Kahlon have clashed in the past over the broadcaster with the finance minister threatening to bolt the coalition when Netanyahu tried to scrap the Kan project before it had even gone on the air.

Channel 2 reported that Deri’s proposal was made at the behest of Netanyahu and was aimed at finding the money needed to fulfill recent commitments made to increase stipends for the disabled community.

At the meeting, suggestions were made to cut from the nonprofit Jewish National Fund, which engages in real estate and infrastructure development projects, and from the Eilat Ashkelon Pipeline Company, which operates national oil pipelines.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, September 26, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem)

Deri argued that since Kan went on air in May the broadcaster has mostly shown poor ratings, aside from the Israel Radio section which he said should remain in operation.

A senior minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Channel 2 that Kahlon needs to explain why his ministry is spending money on the broadcaster despite its lack of success, while at the same time he wants to cut funding from all other ministries.

Shortly after the meeting, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara wrote on Twitter: “I was happy to receive the blessings of the prime minister to close the public broadcaster: An end to a waste of public money.”

However, the tweet was soon deleted and replaced with: “The coalition leaders approached me to close the public broadcaster. I approached the prime minister and when a final decision is taken on the matter I will update accordingly.”

A compromise deal reached by Netanyahu and Kahlon earlier this year, and approved by the Knesset in May, paved the way for the Israel Broadcast Authority to be replaced by the new public media corporation, known as Kan.

The launch came after bitter political infighting over reforms that sought to streamline the former authority’s operations.

A dispute between Netanyahu and Kahlon over how to move ahead with the reforms threatened to bring early elections before a compromise was reached in March. While Netanyahu wanted to restructure the IBA, Kahlon was firm in seeing it scrapped in favor of Kan.

However, while part of the deal was intended to see a news division spun off of Kan, a High Court order in May temporarily froze that move, leaving the structure of the broadcaster in limbo.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon during the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, February 19, 2017. (Olivier Fitoussi)

Kan issued a statement Sunday denying that it had poor ratings and highlighting its importance as an independent broadcaster free of political and commercial influences. The broadcaster also noted that it is cheaper to run than the Israel Broadcasting Authority which it replaced.

“We are continuing as usual, according to the law, at full power with a rise of tens of percent in ratings numbers compared to the past, digital exposure to millions of [online] surfers, a quality alternative to the commercial broadcasts, and a saving of hundreds of millions of shekels of public money. We invited viewers to be impressed by the five new programs that will go on air this week on Kan 11, and by news broadcasts that are independent and clean of political interests and commerce.”

The Union of Journalists in Israel accused Netanyahu of reopening the debate on Kan as a way of diverting attention from a series of police investigations of alleged corruption surrounding the prime minister.

“The ink has not even dried on the High Court decision to freeze this misguided, unnecessary, and damaging law to divide the public broadcaster, and behold, the prime minister and his people are trying to land another blow on it in order to divert attention from developments in the investigations. This is another cynical ploy by the prime minister, who cannot stop the nasty habit of abusing public broadcasting and its employees.”

Many Israelis grew up with only public radio and television run by the former IBA until private stations began appearing in 1993.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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