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Telecom minister presents bill to shutter media watchdog, ease need for news license

Karhi’s plans will bring media regulation under government control, end oversight of content; critics say plan will mainly benefit right-wing networks

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi presents his reform to the media market to journalists, in Jerusalem, July 17, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi presents his reform to the media market to journalists, in Jerusalem, July 17, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi announced Monday a bill that will overhaul the country’s media market, and that critics say will mainly benefit right-wing channels favorable to the government.

Karhi’s plans include shuttering the Second Authority for Television and Radio and the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council. In its place, a single, nine-member regulatory body mostly chosen by politicians and with minimal powers will be established.

Three of its members will be bureaucrats, two will be public representatives chosen directly by the minister, and three others will be chosen by a committee of representatives of the communications, education, and justice ministers.

The existing Second Authority is a statutorily created regulator responsible for “ensuring the transmission of reliable, fair and balanced information,” among other cultural and competition-oriented goals, and is empowered to issue fines for content that infringes upon regulations.

Karhi also plans to ease the requirement for a license to broadcast news.

Other plans include creating a government body to measure ratings — currently managed by a private firm — and creating a fund to promote competitiveness and banning advertisements on Kan public radio, which is expected to severely harm the broadcaster.

The main headquarters in Jerusalem of the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation, known as Kan, seen on January 31, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Under the plans, there will not be any supervision of content aired by television and radio stations.

Critics view the reforms as designed to weaken Kan and networks deemed unfavorable to the government while strengthening and increasing funding received by explicitly right-wing networks such as Channel 14.

Karhi said that the goal of the reforms was to remove undesirable regulations “that interfere and decide what is allowed and what is forbidden.”

He said the existing external regulators “replace the public in determining priorities,” and their removal will promote a more diverse media scene.

“A public that was excluded for years from media will not be excluded anymore,” Karhi said. “The public can establish new channels, and place their views in the media. We want to add competition that will lower prices in this market.”

Asked about the increased risk of the spread of fake news with less regulation, Karhi charged there was nothing to prevent such a phenomenon currently.

In a joint statement, Channels 12, 13, and Kan slammed the proposal as an additional measure “to crush free press in Israel.”

“Implementation of this destructive plan, which includes government supervision and censorship of news as is customary in dictatorships, will lead to serious harm to Israeli democracy, freedom of expression and journalism in Israel,” the statement read.

Then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Channel 14 conference in Jerusalem, October 23, 2022. (Yonatan SIndel/Flash90)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid called Karhi’s proposals a “bribe to the owners of Channel 14.”

“This is a total crushing of the freedom of the press, this is an attempt to eliminate television channels that don’t bow to the government. Only in totalitarian countries does the government control mass media as proposed by Karhi,” Lapid said.

“If his proposal passes, the government will control every word that is broadcast and the public will never hear the truth,” he said, adding a quote by former US president Thomas Jefferson, who said in 1786: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

Karhi called Lapid a liar, in response to his claims the reforms would crush freedom of the press.

“So how do we make media more diverse? Look at what the left did and do the opposite: The left established commissars that interfere with content. I am breaking them up. You know this, Yair, because as someone who imposed his views on the citizens of Israel for three decades — true freedom of the press is what scares you the most,” Karhi said, referencing Lapid’s former career as a TV anchor.

Channel 14 also claimed in a statement that the proposals were not designed for its benefit, and will in fact allow millions of shekels to be transferred to Keshet, the company that owns Channel 12.

Former communications minister Yoaz Hendel also slammed the reforms in a statement, saying they will lead to “no competition, no free market, no infrastructure.”

Karhi initially unveiled his plans in March.

Even before entering office in late December, Karhi was gunning for the Kan public broadcaster, in line with his Likud party’s longstanding plans to cripple Israel’s public news and entertainment provider.

Likud was said to have pressured Karhi to restrain his plans to slash Kan’s funding, in order to prevent stirring up additional backlash amid the coalition’s controversial push to rapidly remake power divisions between judicial and political branches, led by party chief Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In February, Karhi tried to block Kan, officially named the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, from receiving advertising revenue and tried to pass its funding to direct state control. The Finance Ministry legal adviser swiftly objected to the plan, which Karhi had tried to insert into the Arrangements Law accompanying the state budget.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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