Maybe They're Right to Be Afraid

Probably the most significant evidence of the premier’s success in disempowering the media is the fact that his own reputation has hardly suffered from his aggressive steps against the media in recent years.

Last Thursday's late-night Knesset vote on the matter of Channel 10 and Channel 2 appeared to signal, for a brief moment, a triumph for the media, a victory for Israel's free press. After weeks of deliberation between station executives and a special government, warnings from 10's board that it was about to shut down and fire all its employees and street demonstrations by journalists - Channel 10 was "saved" at the last minute by the Knesset. Its franchise was extended for two years and it received a six-year, NIS 65-million loan from the treasury.

Channel 2 was quick to join the fray, and after it announced a dramatic cut in the budget and schedule of its news company, the Knesset's Economic Affairs Committee agreed to postpone NIS 240 million in past debt, incurred from investment in content, and its gradual payment over 6 years.

But the appearance of senior executives from the two leading broadcast channels, squeezed into the meeting room of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee, seemed like anything but a victory. From my point of view, what was being witnessed was an imposed intimacy between those who should be expected, in a healthier democratic climate - and with a better functioning media market - to maintain their mutual distance, so that the media can fulfill its function as watchdog, and report on its findings to the public. It was yet another low point in the travails of the Israeli media under the tenure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Simply put, Netanyahu is one of the most hostile prime ministers to a free press that Israel has ever known, though you might not expect it from the coverage he receives. It began with his demagogic, May 1999 "They are afraid" speech, the line that Netanyahu - referring to a general notion of "journalists," whom he claimed feared his possible reelection - chanted over and over before a crowd of enthusiastic supporters until they joined him in the mantra. It has continued with a silent yet consistent policy that can only be understood as intended to strip Israel's media outlets of any significant power to stand up to the government and its current elected leader.

This was first evident, in Netanyahu's current tenure, in the decision by the Prime Minister's Office to take over the drafting and passage of a new public broadcasting act. A long and fierce public campaign over the reform of the ailing Israel Broadcasting Authority - and the battle to free it from the stranglehold of politicians - ended once the PMO insisted on inserting a number of changes in the new act. These practically ensured that public broadcasting in Israel would remain under the government's thumb. Thus ended the attempts to repair the most fundamental anomaly of the Israeli media landscape.

That was followed by attempts, that same year (by MKs Yariv Levin and Meir Sheetrit ), to change the existing libel law, so as to allow for stricter sanctions against media bodies found guilty of libel, by raising the ceiling for compensation, even when no damage was established, from NIS 50,000 to NIS 500,000. Such a change, had it been successful, would not only have had a chilling effect on journalists and their employers, but would also have branded the media in the public's consciousness as a negative force in society, one that needs to be better restrained by law.

The long and tortured journey of Channel 10 to the Knesset was therefore but another milestone in a slow but steady effort to emasculate the media. Channel 10's saga is, of course, more complicated than that. It is also related to the general economic crisis faced by all media, shortsighted regulatory policy and ongoing managerial failures at the station. But the fact that the channel was left in a state of purgatory for so long, and was practically brought to its knees, is no more than another reflection of Netanyahu's hostility toward the media in general, and in particular to journalists who dare touch such sensitive issues such as his and his wife Sara's taste for luxury world travel, as Channel 10 dared to expose in last year's "Bibi-Tours" investigative report.

On top of all this, of course, stands the outrageous takeover by Netanyahu's American patron Sheldon Adelson of the Israeli print-media market by way of the free daily publication Israel Hayom. Not only does the paper nakedly promote the current prime minister, but it has also caused unprecedented damage to the country's two leading tabloids - one of which, Maariv, has practically collapsed in the interim.

Probably the most significant evidence of the premier's success in disempowering the media is the fact that his own reputation has hardly suffered from his aggressive steps against the media in recent years. Moreover, neither freedom of the press nor the media's financial woes have become important issues in the upcoming election.

Maybe Netanyahu was right when he chanted "They are a-f-r-a-i-d." This election campaign should have provided an opportunity for the press to look back at his tenure in office, and document, among other things, the negative role he has played in relation to freedom of the press - and, more generally, vis-a-vis Israel's democratic climate. This has not happened so far. That may be because it is hard to see the bigger picture when you're busy covering the immediate news each day. But maybe it's simply because journalists have simply been too busy worrying whether their workplaces will survive at all.

Anat Balint, a former media correspondent for Haaretz, is a journalist and media researcher.