Analysis

Israel's New Media Czar Scoffs at the Democratic Process

New bill exposed by TheMarker exposes plan to create political control over Israel’s public broadcasters.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzachi Hanegbi at a meeting of Likud Knesset members.
Olivier Fitoussi

Without public debate, without a professional committee, without consulting with the relevant regulators, without letting the public express its opinion, and all the while keeping everything out of the public eye — the new amendments to the communications law are the whims of a politician, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his man Acting Communications Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, who reveals his personal weakness time after time.

Under the bill, exposed by TheMarker last week, the communications minister would appoint a supervisor for all public and commercial media, a move likely to create direct political control over Israel’s public broadcasters. The ministry would set up a council to take charge of all content providers, including the Israel Broadcasting Corporation. The council would be a government entity, not an external, independent body like the Second Authority for Television and Radio, the current oversight body. The supervisor and the council members would be appointed by the government to short terms of three and four years, increasing their dependence on politicians. The new authority would also oversee Army Radio. In addition, the bill would allow for the foreign ownership of Israel’s television stations.

Over the past few months, the Communications Ministry has been working quietly to draft the bill without letting other ministries or professionals in on the process. When journalists began to suspect and asked whether work was under way on such legislation, they received no response. They weren’t permitted to do their jobs. Communications Ministry Director General Shlomo Filber, a Netanyahu confidant, led a legislative process that was the complete opposite of how such a significant reform should be conducted in a well-governed democratic regime. It’s no wonder that the Finance Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the regulatory bodies that oversee broadcasting in Israel and also no small number of senior politicians are objecting the formulation of the bill.

Not only did the draft not receive the support of any professional committee, it goes against a long list of recommendations for Israel’s communications market that have been published over the past 20 years. The recommendation to create a national communications body came out at the end of the 1990s, but at the time, the discussion was about an external statutory body that was not controlled by ministers.

The proposal began to take form in 2002, in keeping with the recommendations of a committee that was aware of the sensitivity of the issue, and explicitly recommended that the authority would be a government body that functioned with independence and would stand up to political pressure.

Another cabinet resolution in 2005 made a clear distinction between the authority overseeing the telecoms sector and that overseeing media content. Thus, the government decided to create an independent body to oversee commercial content, whose chairman would be chosen by a search committee headed by a retired judge — again, so that it would not have any political ties. This body was never created.

“The era of political commissars in content broadcasts is over,” then-MK Reuven Rivlin, who was communications minister from 2001 to 2003, told the Knesset at the time. “I think the era of the communications minister making decisions about broadcasts is over.” He added, “We’ll be like the rest of the world. It won’t be political responsibility, but rather nonpartisan responsibility like the Federal Communications Commission,” in the United States.

The most recent panel formed to examine Israel’s communications market was the Landes Committee, which submitted its recommendations in 2014. Limiting the dependence between politicians and the government and Israel’s public broadcasters was the basic principle on which its recommendations were based, it stated.

The public broadcasting corporation was formed following a legislative process led by then-ministers Gilad Erdan and Yair Lapid. Deputy Attorney General Avi Licht was involved, and he sharpened the language to keep politicians from influencing the corporation. Everyone understood that the big failure of Israel’s Broadcasting Authority, which the corporation was meant to replace, was the strict political control under which it was managed, which led to the appointment of bad managers and to nonstop intervention in broadcasts.

Netanyahu spent a year trying to block the appointment of a communications authority, and gave in only in the face of a petition to the High Court of Justice. He then repeatedly delayed the formation of the public broadcasting corporation, claiming that he would “rehabilitate” the Israel Broadcasting Authority. When he and Filber failed, primarily due to the opposition of Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, they launched the current legislative process.

This process, which creates an unprecedented link between politicians and the communications market, contradicts all professional committee recommendations. Now that his involvement the communications market has been revealed, it’s hard to believe that anyone would let Netanyahu advance such an inappropriate political process.