ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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Inside Story

Dumping regulator, media overhaul may open press to political meddling, experts warn

Under communications minister’s plan, government would control panel set to replace body that licenses broadcast news, in move allegedly aimed at boosting pro-Netanyahu channel

Carrie Keller-Lynn

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi during a Knesset debate, July 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi during a Knesset debate, July 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Since it was first unveiled in March, a government plan to increase competition in the media market has been attacked by critics as favoring a pro-government broadcaster and undermining freedom of the press.

But a deeper look at structural changes to the media sphere in Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi’s far-reaching proposal shows they can also increase political influence over the media, journalist associations and experts say.

“The central concern is that there will be politicization of the media, that it will lose its freedom,” said Itai Zilber, who leads Tel Aviv University’s journalism studies program.

“It can lead us to having Pravda,” he added, referencing the Russian broadsheet that was the mouthpiece of the former Soviet Union and was widely regarded as an outlet for its propaganda.

Karhi’s plan is being sold as a media market liberalization scheme aimed at boosting competition by peeling back content oversight, lowering the regulatory hurdle to broadcast news, funneling taxpayer money toward “diverse” content, and instantiating a slew of incentives that would favor smaller and upstart channels. Chief among those channels, critics say, is a right-wing, government-friendly outlet.

While Karhi stresses that the reform is geared toward increasing competition, Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, who heads a program at the intersection of media and democracy at the Israel Democracy Institute, dismissed the claim that government regulations were holding back the industry.

The small size of Israel’s media market is naturally limited by the relatively paltry number of Hebrew-speaking news consumers, she noted. Furthermore, Altshuler said, traditional media advertising continues to contract as budgets migrate to digital platforms, hurting the bottom line at every media outlet.

Consequently, “promising the Israeli public major competition in the media market is a lie,” the IDI researcher said.

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi presents his reform to the media market to journalists, in Jerusalem, July 17, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Instead, she and Zilber argue that the new bill appears to be part of a process aimed at cultivating more favorable political media coverage of the government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads the Likud party, which Karhi belongs to.

Netanyahu has long been accused of having an outsized fixation with securing positive media coverage. Two of his ongoing corruption trials center around Netanyahu’s efforts to finagle friendlier coverage from prominent daily Yedioth Ahronoth and from popular news site Walla. Israel Hayom, a free daily that boasts the nation’s highest circulation numbers, is widely viewed as a mouthpiece for the premier.

“You need to look at it as part of Netanyahu’s multi-stage plan to control Israeli media,” Altshuler said. “This plan started with Netanyahu using his friend [the late casino magnate] Sheldon Adelson’s money to establish Israel Hayom.”

And, Altshuler said, Netanyahu’s “plan” includes legislation to aid the growth of the outspokenly right-wing Channel 14.

Karhi’s ministry insists the reforms will decrease politicization by doing away with meddlesome gatekeepers and instead installing a regulator whose powers will be limited to ensuring competition.

“We’re convinced that removing regulation, canceling the need for a license and liberalizing the market will enhance freedom of speech, bring in new voices and improve the communications field in Israel,” it said in response to a Times of Israel query.

But with the government moving to consolidate power by defanging the judiciary and suppressing oversight while regularly attacking the mainstream media, more sinister designs may lurk behind the proposed changes.

“The media reform is one piece of a bigger picture,” Altshuler said, “and it’s not the biggest part.”

The current regulatory regime

Israel’s news media market is not uniformly regulated, falling instead across a spectrum. While the government mostly keeps its hands off print and internet publications, it holds levers of control on who can broadcast news over the airwaves.

A state body, the Second Authority for Television and Radio, regulates Channels 12 and 13, large commercial networks which compete with the state-run Kan public broadcaster on news, entertainment and other content.

The main news desk at the Kan studio in Jerusalem, seen January 31, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Channels 12 and 13 face what Altshuler called a “heavy regulatory burden.” This includes licensing and a requirement to dedicate 15% of their revenue to funding original Israeli productions, which she described as “a kind of levy” on their activities.

Additionally, they each had to create a separate corporation to broadcast news, a system created to make sure the station’s commercial interests don’t influence news content.

The system has largely worked “because those news companies created their own journalistic DNA,” Altshuler said.

While the mechanism has protected a strongly independent press, it has not left the media sphere free of bias, critics charge. A number of current and recently retired senior politicians from the center-left are alumni of Channel 12, formerly Channel 2, by far the most popular news station. They include current opposition leader Yair Lapid; Nitzan Horowitz, who led the left-wing Meretz party in the previous Knesset, and former Labor party head Shelly Yachimovich.

A separate authority, the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council, initially regulated both providers like Yes and Hot and smaller upstarts like the bombastic Channel 14 and foreign-language news channel i24. But in 2018, a government led by Netanyahu passed a law to move them to the Second Authority, widely viewed as an attempt to boost Channel 14 to the same podium as channels 12 and 13.

At the time, Channel 14 broadcast from down the dial, on channel 20, but in 2021 the station’s owner bid NIS 5 million for the right to move the channel down to 14, placing it alongside its rivals and Kan, which broadcasts on channel 11.

Crucially, the legislation exempted Channel 14 from the need to register for a license in order to broadcast news. It also avoided the 15% local content funding rule and was not required to pay to be distributed via Yes, Hot or the Idan Plus digital antenna receiver.

Many saw the exemptions as another way to boost the channel, a right-wing outlet that is strongly supportive of Netanyahu and his government coalition. The station has decried the premier’s ongoing corruption trial and has cheered on the government’s judicial overhaul.

“They gave Channel 14 special conditions so that it would become a major competitor in the media market, and this has been a process they have been working on [for years],” Altshuler said.

Then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Channel 14 conference in Jerusalem, October 23, 2022. (Yonatan SIndel/Flash90)

Critical elements of Karhi’s proposed reform

Over the years, experts have argued for the need to consolidate the Second Authority and the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council into one body. Karhi’s predecessor as Communications Minister, Yoaz Hendel, presented a broad reform package that included such a model in September 2022.

However, Hendel’s plan stressed maintaining the political independence of the media regulator. In contrast, Karhi’s scheme will replace the Second Authority and the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council with a new nine-member regulatory council, largely made up of political appointees, and dissolvable at government will.

Then-Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel at a conference with supporters in Shoham on July 12, 2022. (Jonathan Shaul/Flash90)

Karhi described the body as having minimal powers, but a legal memorandum preceding the upcoming bill revealed that the council would be able to levy fines potentially amounting to millions of shekels. Current regulators also have the ability to fine broadcasters for ethical violations as well as broadcasting beyond the scope of their license.

Karhi’s plan would also do away with the need for licensing, instead shifting to a registration system. In addition, the requirement for a firewall between a channel’s commercial and news sides would be removed, putting outlets at risk of falling prey to a channel’s business interests.

The legal separation between television news companies and their non-news broadcasting arms is considered one of the only safeguards against inappropriate commercial or political influence, with regulators traditionally shying from heavy-handed content moderation.

Karhi is “opening the door to commercial content in news,” said the Israeli Journalists’ Association. The shift would mean that owners of commercial channels could theoretically promote editorial lines that help their other business interests or kill stories that hurt political patrons, as is already prevalent in print and online media.

A spokesperson for the Communications Ministry declined to respond to criticism that the change could open the door to commercial content in news, instead saying that the changes were based on letting consumers choose their news content on the “open market.”

Some see Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has moved to consolidate power and control the media, as a cautionary tale for Israel.

In 2018, Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party put a crony in control of a foundation that has now acquired over 400 media titles, one of a slew of moves supported by Orban to skew media coverage in his favor. While Karhi’s reform is a far cry from the Hungarian example, critics have said they fear Israel may inch toward the type of political inference in media that Hungary is facing, both due to political influence over the regulator and registration body, and by removing a chief protection against undue influence over broadcast news channels.

While regulators won’t be allowed to police content and instead only focus on creating a competitive environment, Altshuler claimed that the new panel may be able to decide who is and is not allowed to register as a media broadcaster along political lines.

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler (R), Israel Democracy Institute researcher and head of the center’s Media Reform Program and Democracy in the Information Age, attends IDI’s Democracy in the Information Age program, January 18, 2018. (Oded Antman)

“This is what’s so filthy here. What [Karhi] does is not regulation, but political regulation,” she said.

A Communications Ministry spokesperson said he “does not know” if the committee would reject applicants and upon what grounds, but expressed “hope that the free market will conduct its own process to determine those fit to run a news channel,” meaning weeding out candidates with insufficient resources and potential viewership.

An infographic from the Communications Ministry bragged that the changes will create “an open market with no content interference” and will “put the power in the hands of the consumer!”

Altshuler slammed the idea of letting “people signal [agreement] with their remote control” as “something like saying we don’t need gatekeepers because the people are going to vote.”

“The Israeli public…won’t have a regulator to make sure the news programs it gets are of high quality. On the other hand, the news programs are going to be political because they are going to be subject to this new authority,” she said.

Controlling viewing data

Karhi’s plan would also transfer ratings from an independent committee to Communications Ministry control, giving it a valuable window into viewer politics and leverage for public messaging.

Itai Zilber, Head of Journalism Studies at Tel Aviv University and longtime Army Radio journalist (Courtesy Itai Zilber)

Altshuler said that giving the Communications Ministry power over both the regulator and the data it relies upon — and then ultimately communicates to the public — is problematic.

“Controlling both the regulator and the ratings data is unheard of in any democracy that I know of,” she said.

Within Karhi’s proposal, she said, is a provision to force companies to provide real-time viewing data to the new rating body, meaning “the Communications Ministry would get data about my viewing habits, including private data.”

The ministry can decide how to present and distribute that data, and politicians can use it to learn about viewers’ political leanings, she said.

“Whoever controls the data controls the message,” Altshuler said, expressing the concern that, “if you control the data, you can go to the public and lie.”

In response to a question about changes to the ratings regime and viewership data, a Communications Ministry spokesperson said that “there are a number of problems with the way it’s being done today.”

He said the ministry has “yet to approve the [specific ratings] system,” but among the options, was exploring the use of a real-time ratings mechanism such as the box-top sets used in the West.

The ministry spokesperson did not answer a request to elaborate on how people would be selected for the sample and said it was not yet known if and how the ministry would handle private viewership data, an action that Altshuler claimed the bill would enable.

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