Netanyahu Mulls Backtracking on Broadcasting Authority Reforms

Reinstating television license fees is among the moves being suggested to rejig the recently passed law calling for replacing the IBA with a new, more efficient and independent entity.

The Israel Broadcasting Authority was supposed to disappear from the Israeli landscape this year, to be replaced by a new and improved organization. 

But in recent weeks Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who gave himself the added title of communications minister in the new government, has been seeking major changes to the new public broadcasting law that laid out the structure of a new state-owned broadcast agency and the rules governing it. This has heightened concern that he is seeking to influence media coverage, perhaps by keeping the old IBA, or most of its features, intact.

The IBA is a government agency responsible for the little-viewed Channel 1, the more popular Israel Radio and the much-hated television tax. 

Under the new law, it is supposed to be replaced by an agency that would be isolated from political influence over key jobs – above all, the agency’s director general and the members of the public broadcasting council. 

Under this law, which was pushed through by Gilad Erdan when he was communications minister in the previous government, a nominating committee headed by a judge is supposed to appoint a temporary director general to lead the process of establishing a new agency. The committee would propose candidates for the broadcasting council to the communications minister, whose only choices would be to either accept or reject the entire slate. The council would then have the power to hire a permanent director general without political interference. 

But Netanyahu is reportedly considering scrapping this process. He has said he won’t approve the proposed slate of council members he recently received, and this has led supporters of the broadcast reform to fear that he wants to amend the law to enable politicians to retain influence over the selection of the director general and the council.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu formally appointed Ofer Akunis, a close associate who serves as deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office with responsibility for the IBA, to be in charge of implementing the Public Broadcasting Law as well, even though Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein opposed appointing him without Knesset approval. 

Pointing a finger at Akunis

One source told TheMarker that Akunis is the person standing in the way of reform and is seeking further concessions on behalf of IBA employees, at the expense of the public.

Netanyahu’s hostility to the broadcast overhaul has also emboldened the journalists’ union to try to block the proposed revamping altogether. “There’s no economic or social logic to the idea,” the Jerusalem Journalists’ Association wrote to Netanyahu and Akunis, urging them to back a plan that would leave most of the IBA’s current staff on the payroll. 

This isn’t what was supposed to happen. After concluding that the IBA was hidebound, inefficient and immune to reform, Erdan wanted to close it down altogether and let the new agency rehire only those IBA employees it so chose. He ultimately relented somewhat in the face of pressure from the Histadrut labor federation, agreeing that 25% of both the IBA’s employees and those of a related body, Educational Television, would be rehired. 

But reformists, not least Erdan himself, argue that transferring the bulk of the IBA’s staff to the new agency would transfer all the IBA’s worst problems, including the overweening power of its workers’ committees, to the new body as well. 

“The Broadcast Authority reform must continue,” Erdan said on Monday. “There’s no logic in having the public pay for such an inefficient organization. We need quality, state-of-the-art public broadcasting, and only a new body can do it.”

But the unions have other ideas, which mainly involve retaining public broadcasting in its current form. The IBA workers’ committees have a list of demands for changes in the new law, which was passed over their objections, expressed inter alia by demonstrations in front of Erdan’s house.

The new law says broadcast workers would no longer be considered civil servants for salary purposes. But unions are now seeking to reinstate their right to receive civil service-wide raises and various other benefits, including tenure.

Traditionally, base salaries at the IBA were low, but staff got extra compensation for overtime, which was mainly enjoyed by close associates of the workers’ committees. This made the average IBA salary among the highest in the public sector. Management also lacked the flexibility to lay off or transfer employees. 

The Jerusalem Journalists Association, meanwhile, argues that the new agency’s budget must be expanded if what it calls “sustainable public broadcasting” is to be maintained. The new agency’s budget is supposed to be overseen by the public broadcasting council and the Government Companies Authority. But whether more money is required is not yet clear.

While Netanyahu, unions and Erdan’s supporters tussle over the terms of the new broadcast agency, the old one is bleeding money, which might result in the loathed TV tax remaining in place.  

The crisis is so critical that it was the subject of a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office on Sunday, attended by Netanyahu, Akunis and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.  The IBA’s budget deficit at the end of the month is expected to reach 50 million shekels ($13 million). As a result, the agency has stopped paying suppliers and may not be able to make its June payroll. 

Racking up the red

If the IBA continues to operate in its current format, with its current staffing levels, it is expected to rack up deficits of more than 200 million shekels each year at the public’s expense. Thus if the new agency only replaces it in another two years, the cost to the public would be 400 million shekels.

The authority had been slated to receive about 400 million shekels in license fees from the public before being shut down and replaced. But for political reasons, the responsible ministers never signed off on the order allowing the fees to be collected. 

In the meantime, David Hahn, the official receiver at the Justice Ministry in charge of dismantling the IBA, is demanding that the Finance Ministry cover the IBA’s expenses. Treasury officials are not necessarily adverse to Hahn’s proposal, although they insist that the law entitles the government to keep collecting the TV tax. The IBA union, meanwhile, wants to reinstate the license fee indirectly, by having the National Insurance Institute collect it on a monthly basis. “Collecting the fee in this way, at a rate of a few shekels a month from every adult who is insured by the NII, would provide a regular and secure source of revenue to the public broadcasting company without collection problems,” the association contends.

Treasury officials are also demanding that the IBA’s staff be cut to about 750 people – the same number the new agency is slated to have, and a sharp reduction from the 1,800 now employed. Last year, more than half the IBA’s 850 million shekel budget went to salaries. The Finance Ministry also says that while it still exists, the IBA should rely more on outsourcing, hire independent producers and separate radio and television operations.

But for now, none of the treasury’s demands is likely to be met. Agreements between the Histadrut and the government say that while the IBA is being dissolved, no layoffs to streamline operations are permitted. 

The treasury therefore wants the new broadcasting law to come into effect immediately, rather than dragging things out. Finance Ministry sources said that Kahlon is committed to going ahead with the broadcast overhaul in its current form and is doing whatever he can to stop the waste of public funds.