Quietly, with virtually no media coverage or public comment, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been shepherding through the Knesset what could be a major change in Israeli media regulation by merging the two authorities now responsible for commercial television and radio broadcasting.
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The Knesset Economics Committee is due to begin deliberations on the law. As understandings have been reached with the committee’s chairman Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union) and other opposition lawmakers, the law could win approval before the Knesset breaks for summer recession.
On paper, the legislation looks reasonable, putting an end to the untidy dual system by merging the Second Authority for Television and Radio, which acts as regulator for Channels 2 and 10 as well as regional radio, with the Cable and Satellite Council, which overseas Bezeq’s Yes, Hot Telecom’s cable network and dedicated TV channels.
Government committees over the last 15 years have repeatedly urged that the two bodies be merged, but political opposition kept putting off a decision – until Netanyahu assumed the communications portfolio and began pressing ahead with the idea. Critics say the merger is another example of Netanyahu’s strategy of gaining leverage over the media. They point to his attempt to delay the launching of the independent Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation to replace the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
Under the current broadcast regulatory regime, the Cable and Satellite Council is a unit of the Communications Ministry and subject to political pressures from the minister. But while the more powerful Second Authority also suffered political interference, it has been an independent, statutory commission with is own budget.
The proposed legislation, however, would put the new unified body under the control of the Communications Ministry, answerable to its minister and director general, thereby subjecting them to influence from Netanyahu in his role as communications minister and to his director general, political ally Shlomo Filber.
The critical issue in the independence, or lack thereof, of the new broadcast regulator is appointments.
When the Public Broadcasting Corporation Law was approved – the one Netanyahu had sought to delay – it set a new precedent for political independence. Top jobs at the IBA were political appointments, which fostered management chaos and corruption.
The IPBC, by contrast, has an independent search committee headed by a retired judge, who is selected by the panel’s members and determines who is nominated to the IPBC board and serves as its chief executive.
The Second Authority’s board is appointed by the government upon recommendations by the communications minister, without a search or vetting committee. The Second Authority’s director general, too, as well as the chairman of the Cable and Satellite Council are nominated by a search committee, but the committee is subject to political pressure.
But instead of following the precedent of the IPBC, the new regulatory authority’s board, the legislation preserves the power of the communications minister. The 11 members of the authority will be selected by a search committee, but the chairman – by far the most powerful member of the board because he or she is also its director – is named directly by the minister.
Moreover, the government is entitled to nominate members for a second term without any interference from the search committee – a system that makes them beholden to political pressures even in their first term.
The media industry is angry about how the legislation has moved forward. Apart from questions about its independence, the authority’s powers, the size of its staff and the source of its funding haven’t been clearly defined.
For instance, the law says its budget will be included in the state budget, which gives politicians power of the purse over the authority. The absence of any rules about manpower gives the minister control over the body by increasing or cutting funding as he or she sees fit.