The closure of Israel’s public broadcaster

The closure of Israel’s public broadcaster

Most people in Europe heard for the first time that Israel was about to shut down its public broadcasting service, the Israeli Broadcasting Authority (IBA), while watching the vote-counting during Eurovision recently. It was announced that this was the last time the IBA would broadcast this tiresome music contest.

It will not be the end of Israel’s participation in Eurovision, but it was the end of the IBA in the way it had been known even before Israel was founded. The well-established broadcaster, though not without its issues and need for reform, was replaced with a new and much-reduced service.

In principle, the huge changes in the world of media, especially digital media, require constant adaptation. But this was not the case with the closure of the IBA. It was another attempt by the government, and especially by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to take control and manipulate the public media in their favor. It is a growing and worrisome trend that undermines freedom of speech in Israel and the role of the media as a watchdog.

The IBA has been under attack by politicians for many years. They did not like the scrutiny that comes with their job, and used the media as a scapegoat for their shortcomings and failures. But Netanyahu took the attempt to muzzle the media to a completely new level via intimidation, manipulation, incitement and restrictive legislation.

For his entire political career, he has used media-bashing as a tool to advance his career. He has portrayed almost every part of the written, broadcast and digital media as persecuting him because of his opinions, and has suggested they are serving foreign interests. He has portrayed himself both as a victim and the defender of Israel’s national interests in the face of a hostile media.

Netanyahu has used media-bashing as a tool to advance his career. He has portrayed almost every part of the written, broadcast and digital media as persecuting him because of his opinions, and has suggested they are serving foreign interests. 

Yossi Mekelberg

The IBA’s origins go back to mandatory Palestine, when the first radio station of the Jewish community started broadcasting in 1936 (the public television service began 49 years ago). Its journalists’ integrity and professionalism served the country’s public debate on some of its most controversial issues.

The crude attempts to reduce the service, especially the news and current-affairs division, was initiated by Netanyahu three years ago during his previous term in office. In the process of destroying a service that covered all momentous historical events in Israel’s history, the government demonstrated its contempt for freedom of speech, incompetence in executing the switch to the new broadcasting service, and insensitivity to the livelihood of its employees.

The tearful on-air goodbye during the last ever screening of the evening news was as much about the demise of the organization and lost jobs as the fear that this is just another blow to free media, particularly the one funded by the public.

Strangely, more recently Netanyahu has been waging a battle against the newly established public broadcaster for no apparent reason, even before it aired its first news bulletin. One can only suspect that those are warning shots to ward off diligent scrutiny of government policies or his leadership, and an attempt to dissuade any interest in the investigations into his and his wife’s alleged corrupt behavior.

The IBA’s closure is part of a more concerted effort by Netanyahu to curb any overseeing of his failed premiership. Whereas he would not dare go as far as Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erodgan to harass or arrest journalists, the state of mind is very similar. He sees journalists who oppose him and his policies as personal enemies and enemies of the state. Similarly, he has also used incitement against the media as a political tool.

This paranoia, alleging that there is a media bias against him, led Sheldon Adelson — chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands, the largest casino company in the US, and an ally of the prime minister — to start a free newspaper, Israel Hayom, which became Netanyahu’s mouthpiece. When the newspaper’s editor recently showed some courage to criticize Netanyahu, he was unceremoniously replaced.

Despite wide protestation against the free distribution of the newspaper, which almost instantly made it the best-circulated in Israel, it has always enjoyed Netanyahu’s protection from legislation that would have forced it to charge money.

Ironically, a major police investigation against him probes secret conversations he had with one of his major nemeses in the media, the publisher of Yediot Ahronot newspaper. The conversations revolved around allowing such legislation in exchange for more favorable coverage of Netanyahu in this newspaper.

If true — and so far there has been no denial of the authenticity of the transcripts of these conversations — it is clear evidence of the cynical and careless approach that Netanyahu is taking toward free speech and the role of the media. It hurts Israeli democracy, but it will not cover up his shortcomings and moral bankruptcy. If anything, it will make the media in Israel, and those who have its best interests at heart, more determined to protect it.

•  Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.
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