Army Radio Mustn't Be Balanced, Palestinians Shouldn't Be Heard So Much, Israeli Minister Says

IDF's radio station must show absolute support for Israel and its military, Ofir Akunis tells Al Monitor, saying it's 'democracy at its best.'

Moti Milrod

The Israel Defense Forces' radio station shouldn't criticize the Israeli military and must give less time to the Palestinian position and to Africans seeking political asylum in Israel, cabinet minister Ofir Akunis said in an interview with the Al Monitor website.

"There (in the Army Radio station) I wouldn’t want balance. There I would expect to see absolute support for the Israeli position and the position of the Israel Defense Forces," said Akunis, a minister without portfolio in charge of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

For example, Akunis said the position of the "illegal infiltrator," referring to asylum seekers, shouldn't be heard on the station, but that he would like to hear the position of the "elderly resident of south Tel Aviv who was attacked this week by an illegal infiltrator."

As another example, Akunis mentioned the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, where nine Turkish nationals were killed in clashes with Israeli army soldiers who boarded their boat, and said that the station shouldn't "explain to me why the flotilla is important and right," but that he expects its "full support for the side of the IDF soldiers who did their job."

Akunis denied that he wants to muzzle freedom of speech, saying that his approach is "just the opposite of muzzling. It’s democracy at its best."

"We’re allowing people to speak. But when it comes to Army Radio, which is funded by the Ministry of Defense, the station’s purpose is to be a station for soldiers," he told Al Monitor.

"I’m not saying don’t let others speak at all, but at least give the second side a chance to express itself," he told Al Montior, adding that he represents big constituencies who feel the media is imbalanced against them. "In Dimona, Jerusalem and south Tel Aviv people ask me: “Why aren’t our positions expressed?” the minister said.

Akunis’ comments evoked angry responses from media figures. Razi Barkai, one of the Army Radio’s veteran broadcasters, told Haaretz: “Akunis, who never passes up an opportunity to be interviewed on Army Radio, should not think his positions are identical with those of Israel and its army. We’ll continue to give a voice to a broad spectrum of the Israeli public, including Akunis himself.”

Another senior station figure said Akunis wants the public to have as little information as possible, so it will be able to “analyze reality only with the tools the government gives it. That’s the surest way to get the public used to dictatorship.”

“The Army Radio provides a service to the soldiers and gives the public unbiased news. The army understands that and most of the public does, only in the government some people are still fantasizing that we’re going to turn into North Korea,” he said.

“What’s amazing is that Akunis not only agrees to be interviewed on the station but sends his spokesman to ask us to interview him,” he said.
Avi Bnayahu, who served as station commander in 2001-2007, said the Army Radio is an anomaly set up by Ben Gurion. “The station has been popular with entire generations who listen to it daily. It has found an accurate combination of news, topical reports and sports and appeals to Israeli society, soldiers and their parents, students and people in the periphery. But it’s not a government asset. Its great advantage is that no economic body or corporation can threaten it with revoking ads, simply because there aren’t any.” He said politicians have tried to tamper with the station but were always stopped by its commanders.

TV broadcaster Rafi Reshef, who worked at the Army Radio for many years, said the station’s strength is in its pluralism, which reflects the state, soldiers and civilians. “Saying it mustn’t deal with controversial issues like the defense budget or the Palestinian issue reflects a basic lack of understanding. The moment you deal with topics of the day, it’s inconceivable not to criticize the defense establishment,” he said.

Right wingers have repeatedly criticized Army Radio in recent years for its alleged left-wing bias. One organization, founded by Habayit Hayehudi's Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, has even launched a campaign entitled "Army Radio – a knife in soldiers' back," which included videos purporting to show Palestinian terrorists voicing their support of the station, and broadcasters "coming out of the closet" about the leftist beliefs.

Army Radio's commander, Yaron Dekel, has decided to lead the station in a more politically balanced direction since he took over in 2012. Dekel said several times that he believes Army Radio should represent the variety of Israel's population, and criticized the media for not employing enough rightists and religiously observant journalists.