Court rules right-wing TV network discriminated against non-Orthodox Jewish groups

Channel 14 ordered to pay $46,000 to Reform, Conservative groups over refusal to give airtime to their voices, which violated the terms of its license as a Jewish tradition network

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

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

A religious right-wing television network was ordered on Tuesday to pay compensation to Reform and Conservative Jewish groups, after a court accepted their claim that the channel had systematically discriminated against them, in contravention of its broadcasting license.

Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court Judge Elad Lang fully accepted the lawsuit filed in 2018 against Channel 14 (then named Channel 20) by the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism and the Masorti Movement In Israel — a Reform group and a Conservative group, respectively.

The ruling orders Channel 14 to pay some NIS 160,000 ($46,000) to the two groups, including court and lawyer expenses. The network has vowed to appeal the decision, arguing it clamps down on freedom of speech.

The network was formed in 2014 as a privately funded network dedicated to Jewish tradition and called Channel 20, and it received several fines in the following years over news broadcasts that violated its government-issued license. That license was broadened in 2018 using legislation that prevented its closure and allowed it — and other small networks — to freely broadcast news as long as at least 51 percent of its airtime is dedicated to its original purpose.

The network launched a main evening news broadcast in March 2018, a right-wing alternative to the three main Israeli newscasts on commercial Channels 12 and 13 and on the Kan public broadcaster. The network rebranded in 2021 as Channel 14 and its political news content is often aligned with the opinions and interests of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In the lawsuit, the progressive Jewish groups argued that Channel 14 had systematically refused to voice their opinions and include them in broadcasts in statements or as panelists or interviewees. They attached a phone call transcript with a Channel 14 editor who explicitly said the network was “attached to the Orthodox stream” and expressed doubt that its decision-makers would be “tolerant toward the Masorti Movement.”

Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2016. (Courtesy Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism)

In his ruling on Tuesday, Judge Lang cited the network’s broadcasting license that “compels it to display pluralism and give fair representation to religious beliefs along the religious-secular spectrum,” including “the voices of groups that are different from the Orthodox majority” in Israel.

Lang rejected the network’s argument that its decision-making is based on commercial-financial considerations and on its viewership being predominantly Orthodox and unwilling to watch “controversial” content. He said the channel’s license expressly obligates it to give airtime to those who hold “opposite views.”

The judge added that the channel’s obligation to air non-Orthodox voices was a product of its definition as a “public asset” broadcasting on Jewish tradition to the entire public in Israel and abroad, “while it is clear that not all its viewership necessarily harbor the same Orthodox views held by the defendant.”

“The plaintiffs have proven that the defendant acted in a discriminatory way by avoiding incorporating content and interviewees affiliated with the plaintiffs’ worldviews in the channel’s broadcasts, despite a very large number of requests made during the time relevant to the lawsuit,” he concluded.

The current court case isn’t the first time the network has been ruled to discriminate against Reform and Conservative Jewish groups. In 2017, the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council handed the network a NIS 100,000 ($28,000) fine for refusing to host representatives of those denominations in its programs.

An appeal to the Jerusalem District Court was rejected.

Then-Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a conference organized by Channel 14 in Jerusalem, October 23, 2022. (Yonatan SIndel/Flash90)

Commenting on Tuesday’s ruling, Channel 14 said it would also appeal the current decision, taking pride in its refusal to reach a compromise that would include “a promise to give positive coverage and airtime dedicated to the leftist Reform groups.”

“This is a miserable intervention in freedom of speech,” it said in a statement. “These are dark days for a democratic country, in which a court dictates to journalists what, when and how to cover [the news] using fines.”

Labor MK Gilad Kariv, a Reform rabbi, said the court ruling “conveys a clear message of equality, pluralism and religious tolerance,” adding that “debates and disagreements are an integral part of Jewish tradition, but discrimination and marginalization cannot be part of our reality in a Jewish and democratic state.”

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