Netanyahu Looks to Cancel Law Restricting Public Broadcasters’ Free Speech

Minister in charge of the Israel Broadcasting Authority quits in protest, defending controversial amendment that would stop journalists from giving personal opinions on air.

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Netanyahu during a news conference in Milan, Italy, August 27, 2015.
Netanyahu during a news conference in Milan, Italy, August 27, 2015.Credit: Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he will cancel a controversial amendment, passed late Wednesday night, that prevents journalists expressing their personal opinions during public broadcasts on radio and television, prompting the minister in charge of the Israel Broadcasting Authority to quit in protest.

Netanyahu, who is also the communications minister, was possibly not informed that the clause was included in the second and third readings of the Public Broadcasting Law, and so didn’t delay the late-night vote.

In a statement, the Prime Minister’s Office said, “Prime Minister and Communications Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes the rules of journalistic ethics should not be fixed by legislation and has decided, therefore, to repair the clause in question.”

The statement is a major blow to the incoming-Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis, who has represented Netanyahu in the Knesset and press in all matters concerning communications reform. In response to Netanyahu's move, Akunis announced he is rescinding authority over the broadcast regulator.

In a letter to Netanyahu, Akunis defended the amendment Friday night, saying "at no point was the clause expected to prevent opinions from being voiced. The whole point was to clarify the journalistic ethics of broadcasting news."

The clause stipulates that journalists who work for the Israel Broadcasting Authority are forbidden from expressing personal opinions on air.

In the letter, Akunis said that in light of the "lack of support, I return the authority given to me over the Israel Broadcasting Authority, and wish (Netanyahu) luck in his role as communications minister."

Akunis has expressed unreserved support for the amendment, which had been introduced by MK Israel Eichler (United Torah Judaism).

Netanyahu is rejecting the amendment, even though his Likud party and other coalition parties expressed overwhelming support for the law in the Knesset. A video of the vote shows the Likud Knesset faction chief, Aliza Barashi, calling on MKs to vote for Eichler’s amendment. In a less than half-full Knesset, the law was passed with 25 MKs in favor and 18 against.

Communications Ministry officials also expressed objections to the clause in Knesset committee stage, but it was approved without their knowledge. Shlomo Filber, the ministry’s director general, posted on his Twitter page that the ministry didn’t suggest the provision in the original bill, and even expressed reservations in committee, without success.

Filber also wrote that the amendment was inserted as a personal provision in the plenum, without the involvement of the Communications Ministry. He said the law books should not be concerned with journalistic ethics, and that the amendment’s validity will expire when the new government broadcast corporation is formed.

Netanyahu’s sudden about-face from the amendment is a little unusual, given that coalition members supported it. Still, some MKs claimed they didn’t know about the provision in question and had simply voted with the coalition.

Kulanu faction chairman Roy Folkman said his party firmly refused to insert the amendment, which imposes on the Broadcast Authority the principles of its ethical guidelines from 1972 (known as the Nakdi document), which forbids journalists expressing their personal opinions on air and the broadcasting of personal programs.

“This was done without proper authorization and in violation of coalition agreements,” Folkman said. Kulanu in general, and Folkman in particular, expressed their objection, and stressed they would immediately submit a bill to cancel the amendment.

MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) also announced she would submit a bill to rescind the so-called “gag clause.”

She warned that “the gag clause, which was inserted in the dead of night,” highlighted the law’s goal: “Control of the press and silencing it.”

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