Cabinet to vote on future of embattled public broadcaster

Ministers will debate Likud MK’s bid to nix new, not-yet-operational corporation next week, Netanyahu announces

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

The Israel Broadcasting Authority building in Jerusalem on March 6, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
The Israel Broadcasting Authority building in Jerusalem on March 6, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday announced he would bring a proposal to shutter the new, not-yet-operational public broadcaster to a cabinet vote next week.

Lawmakers in the Jewish Home and Kulanu parties told Hebrew media over the weekend their respective parties were opposed to the closure, which critics have charged is an effort by Netanyahu — who also holds the communications portfolio — to muzzle voices critical of the prime minister. Kulanu’s leader, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, on Sunday skipped a meeting between the prime minister and coalition leaders on the matter.

Likud MK David Bitan, who is spearheading the bill to abolish the new public broadcaster entirely and retain the set-to-be-closed Israel Broadcasting Authority, told Israel Radio that the United Torah Judaism, Yisrael Beytenu and Likud parties were in favor of his proposal. Bitan said Netanyahu was determined to shut down the nascent operation.

Bitan has argued that the operation — named “Kan” — should be scrapped due to cost. But an unnamed source in Likud told the Netanyahu-aligned Israel Hayom daily on Saturday that the new broadcaster “has turned into a broadcaster for Noni Mozes [who owns the daily Yedioth Ahronoth] and the left.”

The source argued that the job appointments at the corporation were selected by “left-wing figures and Mozes’s associates.”

Under the coalition agreements, the parties must vote in favor of all media reforms backed by Netanyahu. But it was not immediately clear whether canceling the reforms would fall under the clause.

In an effort to encourage the government to keep the new broadcaster afloat, representatives of Kan told the prime minister last week the launch date could be moved up to January, from April 2017. But the new start date would likely be rejected, officials said.

The IBA runs several television and radio stations and broadcasts news in 14 languages. Founded in 1948, when the State of Israel was established, it held a monopoly on TV and radio broadcasting until the 1990s, when cable and satellite TV entered the market along with the country’s first commercial station, Channel 2.

Under former communications minister Gilad Erdan (Likud), the government pushed for reforms that would shutter the IBA and replace it with the new broadcaster, in a months-long saga that was fiercely protested by IBA employees and lauded by the governing coalition and the Likud.

By May 2014, the Knesset passed a law closing the ailing IBA, which politicians at the time described as increasingly irrelevant and costly, and replacing it with a new broadcasting corporation.

Coalition Chairman David Bitan during a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset on July 11, 2016 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Coalition Chairman David Bitan during a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset on July 11, 2016 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The legislation ensures greater editorial independence for the new corporation compared to the IBA, exempting it from government oversight rules that apply to most other public corporations and severely curtailing the ability of politicians to intervene in content and senior staff appointments.

In July, however, Netanyahu decided to extend the life of the IBA and delay the launch of the new corporation.

Sources close to the prime minister said at the time that the corporation was not ready to launch. Critics, however, blamed the delay on Netanyahu’s concern over the new corporation’s independence from political influence.

Last week, Bitan claimed his plan would save the public coffers some NIS 2.5 billion ($658 million), a figure later ridiculed by the Finance Ministry and Erdan, and termed “sleight of hand” by the Israel Democracy Institute think tank.

On Saturday, some two hundred people demonstrated against Bitan’s proposal outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. Protesters carried signs criticizing the “broken” government, saying Netanyahu was cracking down on free speech.

The aging IBA has already been subjected to drastic manpower and budget cuts in recent years in preparation for its replacement, including the early retirement and firing of hundreds of employees.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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