New plan adds to turmoil for Israel’s public broadcaster
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New plan adds to turmoil for Israel’s public broadcaster

With critics accusing PM of wanting to control the media, and shutdown purported to save billions, politicians bicker and journalists suffer

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

A shopper stands in front of televisions broadcasting a speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an electronics shop in Jerusalem. (Abir Sultan/Flash90)
A shopper stands in front of televisions broadcasting a speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an electronics shop in Jerusalem. (Abir Sultan/Flash90)

A long-running mess over the future of public broadcasting in Israel took a further, complicating turn this week with reports of a new proposal to scrap a law the coalition itself approved two years ago, and advance new legislation instead.

The new proposal, which the Haaretz newspaper Wednesday attributed to a “senior and most central” figure within the governing coalition, would scrap plans enshrined in a 2014 law to replace the Israel Broadcasting Authority with a new corporation, and leave the IBA in place. Furthermore, Army Radio, Educational TV and certain elements of the apparently doomed new corporation would merge with the IBA into one body supervised by a single regulator.

The senior figure reportedly intends to present the new proposal after the Sukkot holiday to the heads of all the parties in the coalition and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also communications minister and foreign minister.

The IBA runs several television channels and radio stations and broadcasts news in 14 different languages. Established in 1948, when the State of Israel was created, it held a monopoly on TV and radio broadcasting until the 1990s when cable and satellite TV entered the market along with the commercial station, Channel 2.

In May 2014, the Knesset approved legislation to close the cash-strapped IBA — described by politicians as increasingly irrelevant and costly — and to create, instead, a new broadcasting corporation. The law was advanced by then-communications minister Gilad Erdan, (who is now public security minister) with the backing of Netanyahu.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on July 31, 2016. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool/Flash90)
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on July 31, 2016. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool/Flash90)

The legislation gave significant independence to the new corporation, exempting it from oversight rules that apply to most other public corporations and severely curtailing the ability of politicians to intervene in content and staff appointments.

In July, however, Netanyahu decided to extend the life of the IBA and delay the completion of the new broadcasting corporation.

Sources close to the PM said at the time that the corporation was not ready to launch. Critics, however, blamed the delay on Netanyahu’s concern over the new corporation’s independence from political influence.

At the end of July, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev (Likud) reportedly asked at a tempestuous cabinet meeting what the point of the new corporation would be “if we don’t control it.”

In August, Haaretz reported on a meeting Netanyahu had with IBA workers during which he reportedly expressed regret over the creation of the new corporation and asked, “What if everyone in the corporation were people from Breaking the Silence?” That was a reference to an organization that collects soldiers’ testimony against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians and is hated by the political right.

Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev seen at the weekly cabient meeting in the Prime Minister's Office, Jerusalem July 10, 2016. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)
Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev seen at the weekly cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office, Jerusalem July 10, 2016. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)

MK David Biton (Likud), who heads the governing coalition, has meanwhile been advancing a new bill to cancel the corporation and to leave the IBA functioning, but to make it more efficient.

On Thursday, Channel 2 reported his claim that his plan would save the Finance Ministry NIS 2.5 billion shekels ($658 million), a figure later criticized by the Finance Ministry, and labelled “sleight of hand” by the Israel Democracy Institute.

Biton tweeted on Wednesday that the supposedly even newer plan revealed by Haaretz was a “baseless rumor” and “unsuccessful spin aimed at complicating the situation and trying to delay my bill to cancel the corporation.”

As the politicians argue, both the IBA and the new corporation are suffering.

The aging IBA has already been subjected to drastic manpower and budget cuts in recent years in preparation for its replacement, including the early retirement and firing of hundreds of employees.

Coalition Chairman MK David Bitan on January 11, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Coalition Chairman MK David Bitan on January 11, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The corporation, originally due to open on March 31, 2015, has a chairman, Gil Omer, a director general, Eldad Koblenz, and has been moving ahead on the employment of staff.

One worker who signed a contract with the corporation said he was concerned for his future, the Ynet news site reported. “My contract was supposed to have started now and I don’t know what’s happening,” he said.

“Nobody is talking to me and I don’t know what my fate is going to be. I have a family to support. Netanyahu is doing whatever comes into his head with us. If I’d known it would be like this, I wouldn’t have left my previous job. He doesn’t care about the workers, he only cares about himself.”

Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) said on Thursday that her party would oppose unifying the three broadcasting bodies, the Walla news site reported, because “neither efficiency nor competition are of interest to the government, just reduction, destruction and the voicing of one opinion, Netanyahu’s, to the public.”

At the corporation, sources admitted that the uncertainty was taking its toll. “Many people don’t want to come to us,” sources said unofficially, adding, however, that they were “not giving in.” One senior figure told Ynet that “[Netanyahu] hasn’t won yet.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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