Communications minister unveils plan to close TV watchdog, nix license requirement

Under Shlomo Karhi’s proposal, TV stations would no longer need a license to broadcast news, dozens of radio frequencies would be stripped from public broadcasters

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi unveils his reform in the communications market, in Jerusalem, March 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi unveils his reform in the communications market, in Jerusalem, March 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A legally mandated media watchdog and licensing restrictions over broadcasting news have joined other bodies on the government’s chopping block, Communication Minister Shlomo Karhi announced on Tuesday.

Karhi said that in addition to shuttering the Second Authority for Television and Radio, he plans to lift the requirement to receive a license in order to broadcast news.

The Second Authority is a statutorily created regulator responsible for “ensuring the transmission of reliable, fair and balanced information,” among other cultural and competition-oriented goals, and is empowered to issue fines for content that infringes upon regulations.

Former communications minister Yoaz Hendel, who also crusaded to reduce regulation, dismissed Karhi’s plan to The Times of Israel as “not really doing anything” and “misunderstanding” that the bulk of the ministry’s purpose is to improve communications infrastructure, not deal with broadcasters that are outside of the ministry’s auspices.

Even before entering office in late December, Karhi drew a target on the Kan public broadcaster, in line with his Likud party’s longstanding plans to cripple Israel’s public news and entertainment provider.

Likud is said to have pressured Karhi to restrain his plans to slash Kan’s funding, in order to prevent stirring up additional recoil amid the coalition’s controversial push to rapidly remake power divisions between judicial and political branches, led by party chief Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In February, Karhi tried to block Kan, officially named the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, from receiving advertising revenue (in Hebrew) and tried to pass its funding to direct state control. The Finance Ministry legal adviser swiftly objected to the plan, which Karhi tried to insert into the Arrangements Law accompanying the upcoming state budget.

“He should stop concentrating on nonsense about the Corporation, which isn’t even under his ministry,” Hendel said.

Speaking at his ministry on Tuesday, Karhi said that he “will not act in a hurry” to shutter Kan, and that “the matter is being examined.” However, he said it was a “scandal” that public broadcasters control about half of Israel’s radio frequencies, and that he plans to move “in the near future” to strip radio frequencies from public broadcasters and open them to private ownership.

The main headquarters in Jerusalem of the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation, known as Kan, seen on January 31, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“I see how biased, one-sided, unbeatable, centralized, discriminatory and exclusionary the media market is in Israel,” Karhi added in the Jerusalem press conference announcing his ministry’s work plan. “There is a large part of the public that has for years felt the pain of exclusion and silencing in the Israeli media.”

Part of Karhi’s plan will support broadcasters considered to be more favorable toward Likud and the government it leads.

The communications minister said he intends to break up “cross-ownership” and prevent newspapers and radio stations from also engaging in television broadcasting, as the Kan public broadcaster does.

“We intend to impose directives that will significantly limit the power of the strong, and will empower the new and young players in the market,” he said, backing up previous steps he has taken to support the right-wing news station Channel 14.

In January, Karhi extended an order to give an additional year of reduced regulation and distribution perks to so-called “micro-channels,” most prominent among them Channel 14.

Earlier this year, Karhi wrote a letter to Kan’s governing board, accusing the broadcaster of violating Israeli public broadcasting laws by covering the coalition’s plans to constrain judicial power.

“In recent weeks, the Israeli government — which was elected in legal elections and won a clear majority — is promoting changes in the judicial system. From a perusal, clearly not exhaustive, of the Corporation’s content as recently broadcast, it appears that the Corporation is trampling on its legal duty and seriously harming the public interest on whose behalf it claims to broadcast,” he wrote.

Hendel told The Times of Israel that “instead of focusing on infrastructure, the most important thing he’s focusing the funding and attention on are unreasonable ideas about broadcasters.”

Karhi said that slashing regulators and licensing requirements will further open up the broadcast market for competition.

“The era of hyperactive regulation is over. [There will be] less intervention, more competition and freedom,” he said, promising that “we will reduce interference in the business model, increase the advertising market and encourage the opening of new content channels.”

File: Channel 14 workers and supporters protest against Yair Lapid, the then-prime minister, in Tel Aviv on October 11, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The communications minister claimed that by lowering the bar for content and news channels to gain exposure on Israel’s airways, there will be a “drop in prices” for consumers.

Additionally, he promised to budget NIS 50 million ($14 million) toward the country’s rapid 5G cellular infrastructure, as well as to build out fiber optic internet coverage to “nearly 100%” of Israel within the next 18 months.

Despite the nod towards infrastructure, Karhi dedicated much of his remarks and the bulk of his public comments to slashing public broadcasting.

Karhi also said he would reformulate Israel’s current ratings systems, and accused the current oversight body of being an “exclusive commission that is subject to the influence of foreign entities and interests.”

He did not offer evidence of foreign influence or organizations involved in policing Israeli television content.

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