Hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached a deal with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon on Thursday over the future of Israel’s new public broadcasting corporation, allowing it to start operating but without a news division, members of the new body briefly blocked a central road in Tel Aviv to protest the move.
About two dozen employees of the new broadcaster, formally called “Kan” and widely known as HaTa’agid (the corporation), blocked traffic at the Azrieli intersection in central Tel Aviv near the government complex where they were protesting the deal. The protesters cleared the intersection after being warned police would use force to disperse them.
Kahlon held a press conference Thursday, defending the deal reached with Netanyahu, who had threatened to dissolve the coalition and force new national elections over the new broadcaster. But the minister refused to answer reporters’ questions.
Under the deal, Kan will lose its centerpiece news division, for which staff had been hired ahead of the intended launch on April 30, and the old Israel Broadcasting Authority’s staffers are instead to continue to provide the station’s news.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said the deal meant that the state broadcaster would now be “Bibi’s Pravda.” And left-wing Meretz leader Zahava Gal-on said the deal gives the prime minister “unprecedented political control over news broadcasts.”
The long-simmering crisis escalated two weeks ago when Netanyahu backtracked on an agreement with Kahlon to launch the corporation set up through a law passed by his previous government in 2014 and slated to replace the old Israel Broadcasting Authority, or IBA. Instead, the prime minister called for rehabilitating the ailing IBA. Kahlon, meanwhile, fought for the establishment of the new state broadcaster, as legislated, and with reduced government meddling.
“The battle in recent days has been a battle of principles, not ego,” said Kahlon on Thursday, expressing his satisfaction with the agreement. “It ensures freedom of the press, freedom of speech and it is keeping with the budget. According to the framework of the agreement, there will be no political influence [on the corporation].”
“This agreement prevented the passage of legislation that would have advocated for supervision of the press — a bill that [threatened] freedom of the press and terrorized many journalists and rightly so,” he went on.
Sources familiar with the new deal told the Haaretz daily, by contrast, that “if it comes to fruition, it would represent a complete capitulation on the part of the finance minister and his commitment to setting up the corporation.”
Netanyahu, who had backed the 2014 legislation that established the new corporation, said in recent weeks that the new body was a “mistake.” His key complaint was the law’s guarantee of greater editorial independence for the new agency.
Netanyahu is widely believed to have been opposed to the new body because he perceived it as being too left-wing and difficult to control, despite affirming that his primary concern was saving jobs at the IBA. Netanyahu has long complained of a media hostile to him.
One of the reported sticking points in negotiations was Netanyahu’s insistence on repealing key reforms aimed at ensuring editorial independence for the new corporation and uniting Israel’s three separate broadcasting authorities under a politically appointed oversight body.
Under the new deal, that proposal will not be advanced and the body responsible for overseeing the new news corporation will be subject to the same regulations as Kan, according a statement released by the Prime Minister’s Office.
But in a possible blow to Kan, the deal states that the corporation will be staffed “primarily” by former IBA employees. There are currently 763 employees working for the new broadcaster, 421 of whom came from the IBA. The Finance Ministry is to provide a severance package to employees of both the IBA and Kan who will not be included in the new corporations.
In order to pass the new reforms through the Knesset, the launch of the new broadcaster will be delayed by two weeks to mid-May, according to the PMO.
A spokesperson for Kan told The Times of Israel, however, that no one at the broadcaster had been informed of any of the details of the deal and that, as mandated by the current law, the corporation was still planning to begin transmissions on April 30.
Kan employees announced plans for further protests. “We will oppose these corrupt efforts by the government to wield control over Israel’s free media and specifically its public broadcaster,” the Kan workers’ union said in a statement. “We call on all journalists to join us.”
It was not yet clear what would happen to those hired from IBA to work in the new corporation’s news division, instead of which a separate broadcast entity will be established to deal with all state-funded current affairs offerings.
At the protest on Thursday, an employee of Kan’s digital desk said the deal was “a slap in the face.”