Israeli Politicians Inappropriately Involved in Media, Special Report Finds

Report examining political influence on the Israel's media finds 'failure' to create an independent communications authority, warns of damage to freedom of expression

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem, November 3, 2019.
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

The current configuration of Israel’s communications industry does not enable the necessary separation between politicians and communications bodies, and the fact that a communications authority hasn’t been created in the two decades since the government decided to do so raises suspicions that decision-makers are acting on inappropriate considerations to preserve the existing order, the state comptroller found in a report that was not released to the public.

The state comptroller reviewed the independence of Israel’s communications regulatory bodies: the Second Authority for Television and Radio, which oversees the country’s commercial television channels and local radio stations, and the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council, which oversees multichannel television companies Yes and HOT. This was the first report to specifically address political influence on the country’s media.

The comptroller addressed the question of whether existing legislation enables the necessary separation between politicians and media, or whether it allows for problematic proximity, sometimes even legally.

Comptroller officials examined written communications and messages between regulatory bodies and found evidence of failures and inappropriate political involvement in the media. This included appointments to the Second Authority as well as legislation enacted in 2017 to help Channel 20, among other things. The 2017 legislation was passed so the government could get around the technocrats at the Broadcasting Council.

As TheMarker reported in September, the state comptroller’s office investigated the independence of the communications regulatory bodies. The investigation was termed a special report and included many subjects, including some at the center of two cases in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu allegedly offered benefits for positive news coverage. These subjects were removed from the report on the attorney general’s instruction.

After receiving responses from the parties under review, the report was signed by then-State Comptroller Joseph Shapira on June 6, but it was not published before Shapira’s term ended due to various justifications. Ultimately, Shapira’s successor, Matanyahu Englman, decided not to publish the report on its own but rather to append it to the state comptroller’s annual report.

This decision brought accusations that the comptroller was covering up an important, relevant report into the Netanyahu administration’s conduct in the run-up to the September election. The Movement for Quality Government in Israel petitioned the High Court of Justice against Englman’s decision, but the court rejected the petition.

The most important matter addressed in the report is the government’s failure to create an independent communications authority. Officials in the comptroller’s office concluded that this was a “real failure” that could damage freedom of expression, and that there was a “structural failure” in the communications regulatory bodies in general, and specifically regarding those for television and radio.

Officials came to this conclusion after examining the relationships between politicians and the regulatory bodies, particularly the Communication Ministry’s conduct regarding the legislation to assist Channel 20. Channel 13 aired recordings of conversations between Netanyahu and then-Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, which revealed that the two intervened in communications-related legislation for political reasons. In one conversation, Netanyahu suggested doing away with the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council, and Kara threatened that he would indeed disband the authority because it hadn’t taken up his position.

Every nation in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which Israel is a part of, has an independent communications authority that includes professional technocrats. This body implements the government’s policy for the industry and ensures a separation between politicians and the bodies that regulate the communications industry.

Yet in Israel, despite the recommendations of all the professional bodies and various government decisions over the years, no such authority was ever created. Instead, Israel has two public authorities for commercial media, and another public body for public broadcasts. The Communications Ministry is very involved in the industry and the minister has a great deal of direct authority.

Separate committees recommended forming a communications authority in 1996 – Netanyahu’s first year as prime minister – again in 1997, and then in 2003. In 2005 the government again decided to create such a body, but only five years later did the communications minister at the time, Moshe Kahlon, give the government a plan for actually doing so.