Bennett: Netanyahu's Actions Raise Concern Over Freedom of Press in Israel

Sources on right accused prime minster of trying to exert political influence on Israeli media outlets through political deals.

Emil Salman

Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi) voiced harsh criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to put off the opening of Israel's new public broadcaster, saying it could undermine Israel's free press.

"In recent days, there's been a surprising barrage of laws that aim to reduce the media's freedom, and maybe even to tame the media, Bennett said on Wednesday. "Free press is the lifeblood of democracy and we should all work to keep it that way." 

"As a political leader, I admit that it's not easy to wake up every morning to a critical media, a biting media, but that's exactly media's role in a democratic country," he added.

Netanyahu, who is also communications minister, and chairman of Israel's largest labor federation, Avi Nissankorn, announced Monday that they were postponing the establishment of the corporation from October to sometime in 2018. This means that the 200 workers hired for the corporation so far will be unemployed for 18 months. Meanwhile, the Israel Broadcasting Authority, slated to be closed, will continue operating until 2018, allowing workers to vote in the upcomming election for the Histadrut labor federation's leadership.

Bennett harshly criticized Netanyahu on Tuesday over the decision to postpone the new broadcasting corporation launch to 2018, saying on Twitter that “The picture has become clearer to me over the past few hours. The accumulation of laws restricting the media raises deep concerns over the future of freedom of expression. Free media is the basis of democracy.”

Bennett called the decision to postpone the establishment of a public broadcasting corporation “hasty” and “surprising,” inexplicable and damaging to the workers.

At the same time, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, also of Habayit Hayehudi, launched a move to stop the advancement of the Knesset Channel bill that the Likud is trying to advance through the Knesset House Committee, rather than through the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, which she heads. Political sources on the right on Tuesday accused Netanyahu of trying to tailor the tender for operating the Knesset Channel to media outlets controlled by his associates, among them the Walla website.

Members of Habayit Hayehudi formed an alliance with Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yisrael Beiteinu, which for several hours blocked approval of the bill by the House Committee, despite the efforts of committee chairman Yoav Kish (Likud). In the evening a deal was struck with coalition head David Bitan that would allow the Knesset Channel bill to be submitted for a first reading during the night, but that it would not be advanced further without the approval of all the coalition factions.

In return it was agreed that the coalition would not support a bill submitted by MK Miki Rosenthal (Zionist Union) that would forbid subliminal advertising in any media outlet, including the internet, without full disclosure. Last week Netanyahu had tried to garner support for the bill but backed off in the end.