Fans Fight to Stop Ax Falling on Israel's TV News in English

After 24 years, Israel Broadcasting Authority has discontinued Channel 1’s English news bulletin. Two campaigns are trying to safeguard what's left.

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Save IBA News' Facebook campaign.
Save IBA News' Facebook campaign.Credit: Screengrab
Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber

Throughout her 23 years in Israel, Ireland-born Claire Kosinski has received her regular news fix from an English-language bulletin on public broadcaster Channel 1. The Jerusalem resident does speak Hebrew, but says “it always feels better to hear the news in one’s mother tongue.”

However, to her and other fans’ dismay, earlier this week the Israel Broadcasting Authority discontinued the bulletin, ending 24 years of English news on Israel’s main channel. Now the fans are fighting to save it.

Under a law passed by the Knesset in July, the IBA – which includes Channel 1 and Israel Radio – will shutter and be replaced by a new, slimmed-down body in March 2015. In addition, Israelis will no longer pay an IBA license fee. Yona Wiesenthal, formerly vice president of content for the Yes satellite broadcaster, was appointed editor-in-chief during the liquidation period.

Sunday was the final broadcast of the ten-minute bulletin, which aired Sundays through Thursdays. IBA’s native English-speaking anchors and journalists also broadcast an extended daily show at 5 P.M. on Channel 33, accessible in most parts of the country to cable or satellite TV subscribers, and available online. There is talk, however, of this show being moved to 3:30 P.M., to make way for uninterrupted Arabic programming from 4 P.M. Others fear it will be taken off the air altogether.

In response to developments, former IBA News staff members and viewers abroad launched a Facebook group last week called “Save IBA News.”

The 35,000-strong Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, meanwhile, launched its own campaign on Tuesday.

“Once again AACI is fighting to save the IBA English News!,” reads their newsletter, referring to past lobbying efforts to preserve the program. The organization is urging members to email or fax Wiesenthal or Communications Minister Gilad Erdan about “this terrible plan.”

The IBA spokesman’s office insists no final decision has been made on the fate of the Channel 33 show, and that pulling the bulletin was part of general restructuring. They also implied that low ratings were a concern. “The whole issue of news in English is under examination because of a very low level of interest,” the spokesman’s office told Haaretz in an email.

David London, the executive director of AACI, begs to differ. “Our members are fiercely loyal to IBA News in English,” he told Haaretz, noting that many have called the organization to express their concern. English-speaking Israeli citizens serve in the army and pay taxes, he says. “Why shouldn’t we also be represented in official broadcasting?”

Despite its vibrant English-language media, London insists Israel also needs an official voice in English for the outside world, and for non-Hebrew speakers in the country. “This summer is a perfect example that there needs to be a source for reporters, for governments and embassies that can give an authentic view from Israel,” he says.

Editor-in-Chief Steve Leibowitz estimates that hundreds of thousands of viewers watch the IBA’s English-language news every day, though he admits the numbers are hard to determine. He says most viewers are outside Israel, with around 100 cable TV stations – mostly Evangelical Christian, but also some Jewish – carrying their programming. Individuals can also watch online.

Leibowitz has been on the staff since IBA News in English launched during the Gulf War back in 1991. This isn’t the first time he has seen the programming at risk, and he is still hopeful. “There are people out there that don’t want this to go,” he says, adding that there are high-profile advocates lobbying to keep English IBA news alive.

He is set to meet with Wiesenthal Sunday, when he expects a final decision. His goal, he says, is to “convince the IBA that having English programming is the way of establishing the identity of the broadcast authority overseas – if they want to have impact like the BBC, they have to broadcast outside in a language that people will understand.”

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