After 49 Years, This Is How Israel's Government Shut Down Its Public Broadcaster With Hours' Notice

With an emotional signoff, Israel's longest-running TV news program has run its last broadcast

Channel 1 last Mabat broadcast, May 9, 2017.
Channel 1 last Mabat broadcast, May 9, 2017. Channel 1/Facebook

With an emotional signoff, Israel's longest-running TV news program has run its last episode after a sudden cancellation following a political battle with the prime minister.

The state-run Israel Broadcasting Authority was notified hours before Tuesday's broadcast that "Mabat LaHadashot" (A glance at the news), which has been on air for 49 years, was to be shut down.

Choking back tears, Channel 1 News anchor Geula Even announced on air that Mabat's broadcast would be its last. The program's staff turned out for a tearful send-off and sang the national anthem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the broadcaster's shutdown is part of reforms to create a new replacement organization. But staffers say Netanyahu was unhappy with what he considered critical coverage and is trying to control the media.

Channel 1 chief Eli Baba said that "we were planning on doing a farewell broadcast, to carry out an orderly transfer to the corporation – maybe even a joint broadcast that would pass along the broadcasts to the corporation," referring to the replacement organization. "Now everything has been cut off. The heart breaks over workers who couldn’t even be notified."

The new broadcasting corporation, Kan, is tentatively set to go on the air next Monday, at the same moment the Israel Broadcasting Authority shuts down, following an agreement reached by coalition representatives at a marathon Knesset meeting on Tuesday. The Knesset is to vote on the matter today.

If the pact is ratified by the Knesset, broadcasting will cease on Channel 1, Channel 33 and eight radio stations. At the same moment Kan will begin its programming on TV, radio and the internet. 

However, the agreement met with scorn from professionals and opposition lawmakers, who predicted chaos for the new broadcasting operation.

Most of the 1,050 IBA employees also came away dissatisfied. IBA liquidator David Han said that out of these employees, so far 440 have been hired by Kan. The amendment to the bill establishing the corporation states that this number can be increased to 510. 

As for the other 600-plus workers soon to be unemployed, it was decided that they will be able to vie for government job tenders for one year only, a condition the IBA employees objected to. They had hoped that as before, they would be given extensions on their contracts and the IBA might be saved. 

Han said that beginning Thursday, 500 IBA employees can leave the IBA and start looking for work in the new corporation. However, the situation is expected to be chaotic in light of the new amendment to the Broadcasting Corporation bill, which requires the establishment of a specific news corporation, if indeed the bill is passed and meets the test of a High Court of Justice appeal. At this point it is unclear how the news corporation can begin working at such short notice.

During the Knesset negotiations, the parties sought to ensure that the new broadcaster would serve their constituencies. MK Yigal Guetta (Shas) tried to make sure a new ultra-Orthodox radio station would be allocated a broadcast band quickly. “Bitan, that’s why I stayed here till now,” he said, addressing coalition whip David Bitan (Likud), adding: “If that’s not in the bill, we’ll vote against it.”

MK Robert Ilatov, of Yisrael Beiteinu, whose constituency includes many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, said he was concerned about the Reka radio station, which broadcasts in various foreign languages (and which has given copious, positive coverage to his party). Habayit Hayehudi also chalked up an achievement: Kan’s leadership is supposed to determine which radio stations will be broadcast, but at the behest of party MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, the Moreshet (Tradition) station, identified with the national religious public, is the only radio station to be enshrined in law by the amendment to the new broadcast corporation bill. 

“Who else here wants a broadcast band?” Communications Ministry Director General Shlomo Filber asked sarcastically at the meeting. “I want to have a radio station for the Yemenites,” MK Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union) shot back, adding: “I made a deal with Ilatov to give me a few hours.”

Another dispute involved the programs to be broadcast by the new corporation. The current bill allows Kan to purchase programs from private producers for two years. Now, to increase the number of jobs available at Kan for former IBA employees, such outsourcing is to be cancelled. But Kan’s chairman, Gil Omer, warned at the Knesset committee meeting that “the news corporation will have nothing to broadcast. You’re writing a law that will be a dead letter.”

At 2:30 a.m. on Tuesday, the MKs began discussing one of the thorniest issues in the amendment to the public broadcast corporation bill: the division of authority between the two corporation’s two production arms – general programming and news. According to the bill, they will operate alongside each other. The current amendment offers a two-page description of how the division of broadcasting hours will be decided: The two boards of directors will discuss the matter, and if they disagree, the two heads of the boards will continue to hash it out, and if agreement eludes them as well, they will appoint an expert, and if the expert does not produce consensus, the attorney general will appoint an expert, and so on. Kan’s CEO, Eldad Koblenz told the lawmakers: “This is an apparatus for paralysis. You’re creating chaos. This is on you.”

Communications Ministry director Filber tried to defend the bill, saying: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. They’ll quarrel once or twice, then it will fall into place.” But it was realized that such a model is impossible, for example, if a broadcast has to be interrupted for breaking news. So it was decided meanwhile that Kan’s CEO will make the decision, based on the recommendation of the editor-in-chief of the news division, but the latter would have to submit his reasons in writing.

The agreement to begin broadcasting on Monday, was made possible after a way was found to allow for the appointment of a temporary head of the news corporation. The current bill establishing the corporation states that the head of Kan’s news division will become the news corporation’s editor-in-chief, until the establishment of a search committee chaired by a judge, to select a board of directors and a new head of the news corporation. Meanwhile, the IBA’s official liquidator will appoint a temporary director for three months, until the search committee is established.

In discussion in the joint Knesset committee on the issue, Cabel, chairman of the Knesset Economics Committee chairman, called the three-month timetable “stupid and impossible.” 

The two corporations will be ensconced in the same complex and use the same studios. According to the bill, the heads of the two corporations will have to decide together on purchasing agreements. If they disagree – an expert will decide, but only with the approval of the head of budgets in the Finance Ministry, so the corporation does not exceed its funding.