Foreign Firms Get Okay to Compete in Tender for Israeli Arabic TV Channel

The Communications Ministry's Council for Cable and Satellite Broadcasting issued a tender yesterday for an Arabic-language television channel.

The last attempt to launch such a channel took place in 2004. The Ananei Tikshoret company, the only one that approached the tender, returned the license it won a year later. In the six years since, Israel had seen the launch of Russian-language and Amharic channels, but the Arab-Israeli community, 1.3 million strong, remained without an independent commercial channel of its own.

"The fact that we finally got round to concluding such a channel was needed doesn't lessen the oversight and the criticism [for not launching it sooner]," said Nitzan Hen, the chairman of the council. "The Arab public in Israel was forced to find an alternative on foreign satellite channels and on the Internet."

The tender will include benefits and incentives to ensure the channel gets off the ground. In the first two years, the winner of the tender will be required to pledge to invest at least NIS 2 million in local productions, half of the sum that was pledged in the previous tender.

Another significant change is that this tender allows for foreign investors, including those from countries that do not maintain diplomatic ties with Israel. The foreign investors may own as much as 40 percent of the channel's shares.

The license for the channel will be valid for 10 years. At least half of its broadcast must be in Arabic, and from year three of its operation, the tender holder will be required to broadcast at least one daily newscast in Arabic, of no less than 20 minutes.

In the first two years, the Arabic channel will broadcast for at least six hours a day, and 7.5 percent of the air time must go to original programming, with the amount increasing over time.

So far one group has expressed interest in the tender, that of Suheil Karam, owner of Radio Shams, and journalist Ran Edelist.

"The Jewish public doesn't have the first idea of the cultural, financial and creative revolution occurring in Arab society," said Rafik Halabi, who is advising on the tender.

Jafar Farah of the Mossawa Center, an advocacy group for the rights of Israeli Arabs, said he was concerned that the existing state channel will use the new project to abscond from its obligation by law to broadcast in Arabic, which is one of Israel's two official languages.

However, he also said that the spending to be made from advertising in Arabic would double with the channel's launch.