(photo by Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia)
Israel’s government shut down the country’s public broadcaster last week, an act so contentious that it has the potential to bring down the government and spark fresh elections.
The Israel Broadcasting Authority was widely viewed as a dysfunctional and wasteful structure that Israeli observers from across the spectrum agreed needed reform. But the manner in which the deed was done – which involved both blatantly political motives and insensitivity to long-time employees – has turned the situation into a potential political firestorm.
The country’s press council expressed fears that media freedom in Israel is “at risk.” The country’s president, Reuven Rivlin, weighed in, saying, “Without public broadcasting, there is no democracy.… Without public broadcasting, the state of Israel isn’t the state of Israel.”
The incident inspired beastly analogies from journalists, with one saying, “They not only killed us, but they gave us a donkey’s funeral,” and another commentator declaring: “One does not close an institution the way one drives a stray dog out of the house…. One does not give an ignominious burial to what used to be the leading light of Israeli broadcasting.”
“This is a blow to the most important part of democracy – the news,” said Yitzhak Herzog, the opposition leader.
From the government side, there was little effort to deny the evidence of political interference.
“It can’t be that we’ll set up a broadcasting authority and not control it,” said Miri Regev, the Likud culture minister.
Neither does it appear to be an ad hoc effort to change the media dynamic in support of the Netanyahu government. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appointed himself communications minister and, in forming his coalition, he exacted from every party the promise to support whatever changes he introduced regarding the media.
The fact is there is still a state broadcaster in Israel. A new entity was created to replace the IBA, and some of the IBA’s staff – apparently somewhat less than half –have been hired by the new national agency that will replace the defunct broadcaster. But many of Netanyahu’s critics suspect the new channel is designed specifically to be more amenable to intervention from those with political power.
The print media in Israel has also experienced a shakeup that raises questions of political interference. American billionaire Sheldon Adelson has invested millions to produce the free daily Israel Hayom, which quickly rose to become the largest-circulation daily in the country, at least partly because it is free. Adelson is a strong supporter of Netanyahu, and the paper has been accused of being a mouthpiece for the Likud government.
Netanyahu has a relationship with the media that bears some resemblance to that of Donald Trump, the U.S. president. He picks personal quarrels with reporters with whom he disagrees and even used the term “fake news” recently in referring to CNN and the New York Times, echoing a familiar refrain from the head of the American government.
It was not only the action of shutting the IBA that has caused outrage, but the crassness with which the whole thing was handled.
The 49-year-old flagship TV news program was given one hour’s notice before its final airing, leaving on-air personalities in tears as they said their goodbyes. The program – and the channel – was slated for closure May 14 and the show was planning a farewell episode for Sunday night with nostalgic and historical clips and reflections. The sudden decision to shut it down on May 10 was seen as an unnecessary indignity.
Officials in the prime minister’s office insisted Netanyahu did not know that the abrupt end was planned and agreed that is was disrespectful.
Canada’s public broadcaster has not been above political interference – successive governments have cut funding in what is one of the most destructive forms of interference – but there has been nothing to compare with what has happened to Israel’s state broadcaster.
Israel has a reputation for a disputatious and vibrant media and public discourse. It will not be felled by one government. But recent developments are not encouraging and their impacts will be closely watched to see what effects they have on politics and society in Israel. There are also, of course, independent private media outlets in the country and, we may see – in the way that the loss of one sense results in greater acuity in another – the private broadcasters rise to keep the government effectively in check.