State broadcast journalists condemn ban on expressing political opinions

Reporter slams ‘shameful’ clause in new law; Press Council says it violates free speech; comptroller to probe government’s conduct in abolishing IBA

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)

Reporters for Israel’s Broadcasting Authority (IBA) were fuming on Thursday over a clause approved by the Knesset in a late-night session Wednesday barring journalists from expressing their opinions on-air. The offending clause was part of an amendment to a law mandating the formation of a new public broadcasting body.

The Israel Press Council urged parliament to cancel the law, saying it violates free speech.

Meanwhile, the state comptroller said he would investigate the government’s conduct in abolishing the IBA and replacing it with a new state broadcasting corporation.

“The public broadcasts must refrain from one-sidedness, prejudice, from expressing personal opinions, from grading and labeling, from ignoring facts or adapting them selectively in a way that is not in line with their news value,” read the clause, added by United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael Eichler.

MK Rabbi Yisrael Eichler (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Member of Knesset Rabbi Yisrael Eichler (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The article applies to the current broadcaster, which is set to be shuttered in March 2016, and not to the new corporation that will replace it.

Broadcaster Esty Perez of Israel Radio condemned the stipulation, writing on Twitter: “A democratic state that prohibits in law that journalists for the public broadcaster express opinions exhibits the weakness and panic that characterizes weak dictatorships.”

“Handcuff me,” she added. “I expressed an opinion.”

Israel Radio diplomatic correspondent Chico Menashe termed the clause “shameful” and said he “hoped the prime minister would see the clause and work to change it.”

Chico Menashe (Courtesy)
Chico Menashe (Courtesy)

Speaking to Channel 2 on Thursday afternoon, Eichler — himself a former journalist — clarified that reporters would be allowed to express their opinions if they openly announce their political leanings. Employees of the state broadcaster are public servants whose salaries are paid from the public purse and must act accordingly, he said. The lawmaker added that the government would draft ethical guidelines for the new broadcasting body.

Cabinet Minister Ofir Akunis said the law only applies to newscasts.

Critics of the controversial dismantlement of the IBA have charged that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who holds the communications portfolio, was seeking to turn the media conglomerate into a political mouthpiece. The move has also come under fire for the anticipated layoffs of most of the broadcaster’s employees,

The Knesset early Thursday morning ratified the amendment to the broadcasting law, with 25 lawmakers approving it and 18 voting against.

Earlier this week, the government agreed to defang the law, which would have left 430 Israel Broadcasting Authority workers jobless, following intense opposition from trade unions and coalition lawmakers. However, Eichler’s clause appears to have been inserted at the last moment, avoiding the scrutiny and criticism of opposition lawmakers and IBA workers until after the amendment was passed.

In negotiations with the Histadrut labor federation, authorities agreed to shelve a clause in that new public broadcasting bill that calls on the state broadcaster to immediately begin slashing NIS 10 million from its budget every month. The move effectively saved the 430 jobs, while the government and the Histadrut agree to settle a long-planned overhaul of the service.

In addition, authorities agreed to halt any planned future layoffs until the IBA — whose fate remains unclear — is either reorganized or shuttered. Negotiations with the Histadrut will now proceed to determine how many employees will be fired and how many will continue on in the new broadcasting company.

Last year, the Knesset approved legislation to abolish the IBA and replace it with a new public entity. The current staff of some 1,500 is expected to be reduced to some 700.

The bill’s sponsor, then-communications minister Gilad Erdan, explained at the time that the need for the change stemmed from the broadcast authority becoming increasingly unnecessary. Erdan said a new public entity would save money and do away with the unpopular television tax.

The IBA was established in 1948 and held a monopoly on TV and radio broadcasting in Israel until the 1990s.

Since 1965, any Israeli household with a television set was obligated to pay an annual television tax which helped fund the IBA. Today, the tax stands at NIS 345 per year ($90). The IBA strictly enforced this rule, ignoring pleas from TV owners who did not use IBA’s services or were not connected to any television service whatsoever. The amendment approved early Thursday also abolished the TV tax retroactively from January 2015.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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