Clutching a glass microphone trophy on stage in front of a roaring crowd in Lisbon, Netta Barzilai accepted her win for Israel at the 2018 Eurovision: “I love my country!”
Back home, Israelis celebrated the victory, which came with the ancillary prize of the Jewish state hosting the 2019 international song contest. But neither they nor Barzilai realized at the time the impact her win would have on preserving Israel’s public broadcaster as an independent body.
In the wake of Barzilai’s win, the government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backed off from a law it had passed a year earlier to split the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation (IPBC) in two in an attempt to exercise greater control over the news division. Such a move would have jeopardized Israel’s standing as a member of the European Broadcasting Union, making it ineligible to host the competition.
With Barzilai’s win, the IPBC — which hit airwaves in 2017 as a replacement for the long-running Israel Broadcasting Authority — was left untouched.
Just five years later, it is facing yet another existential crisis, as members of the current Netanyahu government have made it clear they are seeking to shut down or largely sideline the public broadcaster, known as Kan.
At the Eurovision in Liverpool this May, pop megastar Noa Kirel will represent Israel with the song “Unicorn,” and has set her sights on taking home the top prize once again. Could her potential win throw another wrench in the government’s plans? And how has Israel’s public broadcaster again emerged as a hot-button political target?
Since he took office two months ago, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi has vowed to make shutting down or sidelining the IPBC his first move. The minister has said repeatedly that he wants to create greater competition in Israel’s media landscape and distribute public funds to a variety of outlets instead of just one.
Karhi has made it clear that he is gearing up to go to war with the IPBC, including issuing a letter last month accusing it of violating the law by presenting biased coverage of the government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary. Leaked versions of Karhi’s plans claim he intends to slash hundreds of millions of shekels from the IPBC budget and shut down at least three of its radio stations.
Insiders say that any move to close or defund the network’s new division is likely to lead to its complete closure.
“If they significantly cut from the news department – the entire channel is built around the news. And if they harm that, then its other productions will also be harmed; it would cause it to collapse from within,” said Nurit Canetti, chairwoman of The Union of Journalists in Israel.
The entire 2023 IPBC budget stands at NIS 822.8 million ($228 million) — which covers all Kan programming – news, scripted, documentary – as well as its multiple radio stations, Arabic-language channel Makan 33, popular children’s network Kan Educational and purchasing broadcast rights for sports and other outside programming.
In its few years on air, Kan has produced a range of hit TV shows that have made waves in Israel and around the world, including thriller “Tehran,” which won an International Emmy Award and was picked up by Apple TV+; mockumentary “Checkout,” nominated for the same award; and drama “Zero Hour” (also known as “The Lesson”), which took the top prize at the Canneseries festival in France last year.
A spokesman for Karhi told The Times of Israel in early March that the minister still intends to move ahead with his plan, but declined to provide any timeline for such a move. Karhi has reportedly been told to stand down as the government first pursues its controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary.
“At the end of the day, we’re talking about an outcome where hundreds of employees will likely be fired,” said Vered Pelman, a Kan reporter and a member of its workers committee. “The IPBC won’t look like it does now, the public needs to understand that. And it will not be able to provide the public with the same programs at the same level that it has until now.”
Shortly after taking office, Karhi said at a conference that there is “no place for public broadcasting” in the State of Israel.
“What I’m planning to do in the media market, through my and Likud’s liberal economic worldview, is to remove barriers, to remove regulation, and to remove factors that harm the free market and harm competition,” he announced, calling the IPBC too dominant a player and one that “blocks” and “polices” the overall market.
He said that the goal of public broadcasting is to “create a range of voices in the Israeli media,” a goal that “has failed.” Karhi said, “While I may be mistaken… I see the media leaning too far to the left. But I say, let’s allow the public to decide.”
In his address, Karhi also falsely claimed that there is no public broadcasting in the United States, “the largest democracy in the world.” In fact, Congress provides $465 million a year to support the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR).
Experts say that public broadcasting, in particular public news outlets, are crucial in any democracy, and critical to informing the public in the State of Israel.
“The news from a public broadcaster is news which has no financial backer trying to steer it or silence it,” said Canetti, who is a journalist with Army Radio. “The commercial networks produce quality news, but their owners have economic interests, and those economic interests – and everything tangentially connected – is covered less. In publicly funded news, that doesn’t happen.”
Within Israel’s relatively small media market, several major players dominate the field, and they are also invested in a range of other business interests.
Channel 12, the most watched network in Israel, is largely controlled by the Wertheim family, which owns several banks and is also responsible for the distribution of most bottled drinks in Israel, including Coca-Cola, Fanta, Sprite, Prigat, Neviot water, Carlsberg and Guinness. Channel 13’s majority owner is billionaire Len Blavatnik, who has a range of global business interests including oil and petrochemicals; it is also partly owned by the Strauss family, Israel’s largest food manufacturer.
Dr. Oranit Klein Shagrir, a lecturer in communications at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem who has written extensively about public broadcasting, explained that Kan is able to cover stories that the commercial networks cannot.
“Who will investigate the pollution of the Coca-Cola factory if there won’t be any public broadcasting?” she asked, noting the soft drink company’s ties to Channel 12. “Who will do an article on the banks? The banks are among the biggest backers of the commercial networks. It is logical that the only one that can do it is the media outlet that doesn’t owe them anything.”
The academic also noted that countries that operate and fund a robust public broadcaster tend to have stronger democracies and a more informed citizenry.
“There are studies in other countries in the world that show a connection between a strong democracy and a strong public broadcaster,” she said. “There is a clear connection between citizens in democracies being aware, having political knowledge, being involved in politics – and a strong public broadcaster.”
And within Israel’s small media market, there is a limit to the amount of competition that can be sustained. When the government mandated in 2017 that Channel 2 split into two separate networks in order to boost competition in the market, the move was short-lived, as Channel 13 struggled to survive and — less than a year later — merged with Channel 10, bringing back the same number of channels that existed pre-split.
Klein Shagrir pointed out that the two main commercial networks in Israel, Channels 12 and 13, tend to show largely similar content – a long lineup of reality TV contests – in their competition for viewers. “But I think there’s room for programs that don’t get a huge viewership, and are relevant to specific groups – for example Kan programs that deal with Israeli traditions, with Jewish traditions, with minority groups, with people with disabilities… things that the commercial networks don’t do, because they’re concerned with the bottom line, with the ratings.”
Yoaz Hendel, a former politician who served as communications minister in the past two governments, said the State of Israel has a commitment to supporting “the local market,” and Karhi’s plan to cut the IPBC budget as well as cut regulation in the industry “will harm local Israeli productions – and also doesn’t accomplish any logical goal.”
Canetti pointed out that “there is a limit to how much competition can survive in the State of Israel, where there is a fairly limited audience. Productions in Hebrew are not like productions in English, which can reach dozens of countries. Local productions appeal largely to a small audience of a few million, so there’s a limit to how much you can spread out the competition.”
Media vs. government
Then-culture minister Miri Regev, the current Likud transportation minister, infamously said in 2016: “What good is public broadcasting if we can’t control it? The minister should have control — why would we give them money and then let them air whatever they want?”
Regev’s statement has long been seen as a prime example of “saying the quiet part out loud” – a government official openly admitting what others have been denying is the motivation. Many members of Likud — including Karhi, Regev, Tally Goltiv and Galit Distel Atbaryan — have made it clear that they want to control Israel’s public broadcasting and, if they can’t do so, see no reason to provide it with funding.
“You have to ask what’s the goal, what’s the destination, where does he want to get to,” Hendel asked of Karhi’s plans. “If they don’t want public broadcasting, that’s a statement… it’s legitimate to debate that. But that’s not the argument here, it’s an attempt to mish-mash” a bunch of ideas together.
It is impossible to discuss the relationship between the government and news outlets without noting Netanyahu’s complicated relationship with the media. He has long railed against media outlets as being biased against him, has boycotted news networks following staffing decisions he disagreed with, and allegedly sought to use his office to intervene in media coverage.
Two of the three cases in Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial are linked to his alleged attempts to intervene in media coverage. In Case 2000, Netanyahu is accused of trying to broker a deal with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister support legislation that would hobble the rival daily newspaper Israel Hayom in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth. In Case 4000, Netanyahu is charged with working to advance regulatory decisions to benefit Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in telecommunications giant Bezeq, in exchange for positive coverage on Elovitch’s Walla news site.
Netanyahu denies all wrongdoing and accuses political rivals, prosecutors and the media of conspiring to push him from power. A spokesman for Karhi indicated that the plan for Kan reform has been held up due to the attorney general warning the minister against discussing it with Netanyahu, who is bound by a conflict of interest agreement due to his ongoing trial.
Klein Shagrir pointed out that “every government and every politician is much more comfortable if media outlets are beholden to them.”
“I can understand why politicians would want media outlets that do not criticize them, and maybe that’s in their best interest, but it’s not in the best interest of the public, of us,” she said.
If Karhi redistributes public funds allocated to Kan to other outlets, it is expected to create a system where producers are competing for government money.
“He hasn’t explained how he will take this money and divide it up. Will there be a committee that decides which producers to give the money to?” asked Canetti. “If the communications minister appoints the members of the committee, we can assume it will include people who represent the minister’s tastes and will divide the money among producers who create content with certain messages,” she added.
“And we believe in freedom of thought. Things that aren’t easy to watch or fun to see, that don’t represent any one agenda, also need to be expressed,” she said.
Karhi’s plan is also predicted to funnel some public funds toward Channel 14, a TV network that has adopted an unabashed right-wing stance and is favored by many politicians in the current government.
Hendel, who served as a lawmaker in the Blue and White and New Hope parties and is now a commentator on Channel 13, opined that Karhi’s real, unstated goal is “to support Channel 14.”
Klein Shagrir said that while Channel 14 is a legitimate network, she does not believe it should be the recipient of public monies: “I don’t think that a channel that identifies with one side of the Israeli political map in such a pronounced way should receive public funding.”
“A public broadcaster must be a network that appeals to all groups, to all opinions, to the entire Israeli spectrum,” she said. “It sounds cliché, but it’s not a cliché.”
From the IBA to Kan
A Netanyahu-led government established the IPBC. Could one also bring the public broadcaster down?
For close to three decades, Israel only had publicly funded TV stations — primarily Channel 1. The first commercial station was launched in 1993, airing for decades on Channel 2 before splitting into two channels, now known as Channel 12 and Channel 13, in 2017. Today, Kan 11, Keshet 12 and Reshet 13 make up the main original TV networks in Israel, alongside the newer Channel 14, which broadcasts right-wing and religious content.
Kan hit the airwaves in 2017, launching after a lengthy political battle to shut down its predecessor, the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which operated since 1948 in public radio and then television. For years, lawmakers – as well as the state comptroller – accused the IBA of having an inflated budget and overpaid staffers, along with nepotism and general mismanagement.
Despite the IPBC being approved and established under a Netanyahu-led government, it got off to a rocky start. Days before it hit the airwaves – almost three years after the law creating it was passed – Netanyahu struck a deal in the Knesset to split the news department off into a separate division, after long complaining of a lack of government control of the corporation’s editorial line. The High Court of Justice issued an injunction against the division, and the full broadcaster launched as one unit.
A year later, Barzilai won the 2018 Eurovision, earning Israel the right to host the competition. But hosting – as well as participating – in the Eurovision is a right reserved for members of the European Broadcasting Union, a collection of public broadcasters. The EBU warned Israel that a requirement for membership is broadcasting both news and entertainment programming under one roof. Netanyahu therefore backed off from the deal he struck to split Kan in two, leaving it to continue operating as a single body.
The EBU is paying close attention this time around as well. Over the past two months it has twice issued a warning to Netanyahu that harming the IPBC would jeopardize its ability to remain a member of the EBU, and expressed concern over “fresh threats” to Kan’s “independence and sustainability.”
“The EBU has already said – and not for the first time – that without news, and without independent news, Israel cannot be a member,” said Canetti. “If the news department is harmed, we’ll be kicked out of the EBU, and won’t be a part of this body and won’t compete in the Eurovision. We feel like we’re part of Europe – but this will return us to being part of the Middle East.”