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Bardugo quits on-air, primisng fight for freedom of speech

Opposition’s right-wing bloc boycotts Army Radio after it drops pro-Netanyahu voice

Radio station removes conservative commentator Jacob Bardugo from his primetime daily slot, sparking outrage and accusations of suppressing free speech

Radio show host Jacob Bardugo speaks at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the Channel 20 in Jerusalem, on March 16, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Radio show host Jacob Bardugo speaks at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the Channel 20 in Jerusalem, on March 16, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The government opposition’s right-wing and religious bloc said Thursday it will boycott Army Radio by refusing to give any interviews to protest the station’s removal of a right-wing pundit from a primetime daily news show.

In a joint statement, the parties said the ousting of Jacob Bardugo, a supporter of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, from the program was “scandalous” and called for the station to be closed.

Earlier, Army Radio announced that Bardugo would stop hosting the daily 5 p.m. news show together with journalist Yaron Vilensky, who will continue to helm an expanded broadcast with more detailed reports during the time slot.

The station said Bardugo would continue to host a Friday morning opinions program and that he was offered a position on a political panel hosted by the station.

However, on Friday morning during the morning program, Bardugo read out a statement accusing the station of trying to silence him and announced his resignation, surprisingly leaving during the first few minutes of the show and leaving his surprised co-host alone in the studio.

“Evidently we’re only at the start of the battle over freedom of speech and the right to hear and be heard,” he said. “It will be protracted and we aren’t going anywhere.”

According to acting station head Galit Eltstein, the shuffle came in order to clearly separate news from opinion at the station.

The changes, she said, are part of changes being made to enable the news department “to act as a professional and state journalistic tool.”

Bardugo is a strident Netanyahu loyalist, and has been a relentless critic of recently departed attorney general Avichai Mandelblit and others involved in the prosecution of the former prime minister. He has also frequently tangled with the station’s own news reporters, critiquing their coverage.

The opposition parties said that “the leaders of the national camp parties have decided to suspend interviews with Army Radio until further notification.”

They further called on “anyone who advocates freedom of speech to do the same” and for the “immediate closure” of the station.

The protest began with Netanyahu’s inner circle, with several lawmakers saying they will no longer give interviews to Army Radio. Netanyahu is now the leader of the opposition.

The boycott then escalated into a united front by the bloc, with Netanyahu’s Likud party, the right-wing Religious Zionism party and the religious United Torah Judaism and Shas factions signing on.

Netanyahu said Bardugo’s removal from the daily show was “an outrage and further testimony to democracy and freedom of speech being trampled upon by the left. They’re trying to shut up the last right-winger at Army Radio.”

The opposition also includes the Arab-majority Joint List party, which was not involved.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a conference in Jerusalem, February 8, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Bardugo said in a statement Thursday that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid had decided to “silence my voice” in what he called a “disgraceful mark against freedom of speech that is supposed to be a basic right.”

However, sources close to Gantz’s, whose ministry oversees the state-owned, publicly funded national radio station, told the Kan public broadcaster that the minister “didn’t know” about the changes and was not involved in forming them. There was no evidence Bennett had made a decision to remove Bardugo.

Army Radio — one of the most listened-to news stations in the country — is staffed by a mix of young soldiers and seasoned journalists. The station’s position as a media outlet has thus always been an uneasy one, functioning simultaneously, and sometimes discordantly, as an independent news organization that seeks to critique the government and as an arm of the Israeli military dedicated to covering the troops and furthering the narrative of the military as an area of national consensus.

For several years, the IDF has sought to remove Army Radio from the military and the Defense Ministry’s purview. In January, Gantz announced a plan to separate Army Radio from the IDF once and for all, a move that had long been expected but had been repeatedly delayed so as to avoid shuttering the station for good.

In January, Deputy Attorney General Meir Levin issued a legal opinion saying the Defense Ministry and IDF lack the authority to order the closure of Army Radio, and that a Knesset bill was the best method for approving the move.

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