Right-wing Channel 20 faces closure over news offerings

Right-wing Channel 20 faces closure over news offerings

After interviewing Netanyahu twice, focusing on current affairs, station could be shut down for breaching the terms of its license; ministers vow to block move

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Screen capture from video of an interview with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, broadcast on Channel 20, July 13, 2017.
Screen capture from video of an interview with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, broadcast on Channel 20, July 13, 2017. (YouTube/uz72777)

Israel’s right-wing Channel 20 heritage channel is facing hefty penalties and possible closure for violating the terms of its license in broadcasting news and current affairs offerings, including two recent interviews with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The chair of the Communications Ministry’s Council for Cable TV and Satellite Broadcasting, Yifat Ben-Chai Segev, is recommending that the regulators cancel the channel’s NIS 4 million in guarantees, a step before terminating its license altogether. The council was convening Thursday to discuss the proposed sanctions.

Several government ministers, meanwhile, vowed the TV channel would not be shut down.

“Channel 20 will continue to exist and no one will shut it down,” Communications Minister Ayoub Kara (Likud) told Israel Radio on Thursday morning. “As much as you can create competition in the media [market], I will do it.”

Minister of Communications Ayoub Kara holds a press conference on moves to shut down the Al Jazeera offices in Jerusalem, August 6, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) said there was “no logic and certainly no justice in leveling sanctions against Channel 20,” as the government is “advancing a policy of increasing competition in the market.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has said it will introduce reforms to open the media market to competition, including allowing general TV channels free rein on its content. However, the government has yet to bring those proposed reforms to the Knesset table.

Netanyahu has skewered Israel’s media landscape as being too left-wing, and attempted, unsuccessfully, to bring down the new public broadcaster Kan through government legislation. He has also championed Channel 20 as heralding a shift in the Israeli news market, granting two interviews to the channel despite rarely speaking to the local press.

Under a 1982 law, the country’s TV stations fall under the jurisdiction of the governing council that determines the terms of its license.

“Channel 20 represents an important and different voice in the Israeli media, and closing the channel will harm freedom of expression,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted on Thursday. “I urge the prime minister and communications minister to ensure that it continues to exist and to prosper.”

“The intention to shutter Channel 20, like the danger of closure that loomed over Channel 10 three years ago, casts a pall over Israeli democracy,” President Reuven Rivlin wrote on Facebook later in the day. “The regulatory considerations are important and should be upheld, but what is even more important is the variegated democratic discourse, the exposure to the full range of opinions and takes.” He said that’s a prerequisite for a “healthy democracy.”

Channel 20 began broadcasting in August 2014, as a station focusing on Jewish tradition with a conservative bent.

In December 2016, the Council for Cable TV and Satellite Broadcasting gave its okay for Channel 20 television to broadcast a news program for up to one hour during the prime-time hours of 8-11 p.m. Although permission was granted for the station to show news, that was on condition of implementing certain appointments and other supplementary measures, a process that has not yet been completed.

Upon a request from the station, the council also eased its original restrictions, saying 75 percent of the channel’s offerings must focus on heritage and religion, and 25% on current affairs offerings. That permission was petitioned to the High Court of Justice by a competitor of the TV channel, who argued the council was favoring Channel 20 and allowing it to breach its license.

In July, the council announced it was investigating the channel on suspicions that it had violated the terms of its license in interviewing Netanyahu on a late-night show.

The TV station has paid out hundreds of thousands of shekels in fines for other infractions, including for broadcasting news content, since it went on air in 2014.

In July, the High Court nixed a contract for Channel 20 to produce, manage and broadcast the Knesset Channel for the next 10 years. The court found that there were irregularities in the tender process and suspended the agreement until it could be properly investigated. The case is ongoing, with additional hearing scheduled in the fall.

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