Public Broadcasting in Israel Faces Up to Uncertain Future

Israel Broadcasting Authority is to be replaced by a new body next year, but many employees at the old organization still don’t know what will happen to them.

Emil Salman

After decades of discussions about the future of the Israel Broadcasting Authority — including 14 committees to study the matter, countless plans for major reform and endless battles — something actually changed in public broadcasting last week: The process of shuttering the IBA and establishing its replacement reached its most painful stage as hundreds of employees began leaving the old organization.

One after another, small farewell parties were held for departing IBA employees, some of whom had been there for decades. The most intense moment came last week during the broadcast of the nightly “Mabat” news program on Channel 1, which ended with a behind-the-scenes look at the dozens of longtime news department employees who all left their jobs on the same day: September 30.

It was clear to everybody that this day would arrive eventually. The dramatic reforms at the IBA were a necessary and essential process that received wide public support. But the way things were handled made it a very difficult time.

For months, the stress and confusion inside the corridors of the IBA over the planned voluntary layoffs and threats of dismissals reached unbearable proportions. Scraps of information leaked out and were then denied, and employees feared the size of the voluntary compensation package would shrink if they didn’t take it immediately. The state’s official receiver, who is in charge of closing the old IBA, estimates these severance packages at about 600,000 shekels to 700,000 shekels ($153,000-$178,000) per employee – not including the various additional payments for pension agreements.

In the end, 205 IBA employees left last week as part of the voluntary layoff process. Another 32 are at various stages in the leaving process, and dozens of others are considering the severance package. Because of the holidays and other confusion, the final date for accepting the offers was moved back from September 30 to October 31.

Among those leaving are many well-known names, mostly from Israel Radio. They include radio show host-editor Yael Ayalon; Anat Davidov, the manager of the Reshet Bet radio station in Tel Aviv; Revital Amit, who hosted a radio program; producer Shosh Forman; and many, many others with years of radio experience between them.

Very few television journalists have left, for now, with the exceptions of Itay Vered and David Nissim.

Cutting 10 million shekels

Last week’s wave of layoffs came in addition to the natural process of those leaving the IBA. In a report written by Official Receiver David Hahn, 230 IBA employees left last year for various reasons. There were 1,420 employees before last week’s layoffs, down from a peak of some 1,800. The figure currently stands at about 1,200.

The voluntary layoffs are a key part of implementing the new public broadcasting law, which was pushed by former Communications Minister Gilad Erdan. Under the new law, the old IBA will be closed and a new public broadcasting body established to replace it.

The new broadcasting body will include all eight existing stations of Israel Radio, Channel 1 television, a children’s channel based on today’s Educational Television, and an Arabic channel. The new authority will also produce its own sports and news programs.

The new law was based on the recommendations of the committee headed by producer Ram Landes, who played a major role in establishing both the Channel 2 and Channel 10 news operations. The law was working from the position that it was no longer possible to rehabilitate the IBA; instead, it would need to be replaced by a new body with a different corporate culture and be free of political influence.

But the road to the new public broadcasting authority still has a way to go. IBA employees, who for years fought the proposed reforms — successfully, as far as they were concerned — have spent the past few months living in uncertainty. Things reached a peak early last month when the amendment to the public broadcasting law was passed. It had been pushed by the Finance Ministry and led by the Communications Ministry’s director general, Shlomo Filber, who had been entrusted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (in his capacity as communications minister) to carry out the program. The amendment requires Hahn to cut spending at the IBA by some 10 million shekels a month, starting this month.

At the moment, the authority’s costs are mostly financed through the state budget, after a problematic decision — which was only legislated retroactively — not to collect the television license fee in 2015. Because of the threat of dismissals, the Histadrut labor federation and the journalists association agreed to the immediate layoffs of 300 employees by the end of September (and if enough employees did not sign up voluntarily, Hahn was free to fire workers to reach the necessary number).

However, this target has still not been reached — partly because it fell during the holiday season, but also because of a last-minute bottleneck caused by requests by those waiting until the last moment because they weren’t sure what their fate was under the layoffs. At the same time, some employees who were deemed essential to keep the radio stations operating had their contracts extended.

IBA employees were heavily critical of the layoff process, claiming it was not run properly and should have been conducted in a more professional manner. As a result of the delay, broadcast schedules may have to be cut back — something the new law allows Hahn to do if it’s because of the layoffs.

Appointments panel without women

In addition to the fears of the laid-off workers — most are whom are no longer young and will have a hard time finding work — the uncertainty and stress on those employees remaining at the IBA is also increasing.

In the next few weeks, the process of appointing the new body’s senior executives will begin. The new organization is currently being run by an acting CEO, Eldad Koblenz. The appointment of the senior officials will be made by a search committee without any women members — a decision that has attracted criticism from women’s organizations.

The new deputy director generals will be the ones who decide which current IBA employees will be hired by the new broadcasting body. It’s expected that the new unified news department — serving the television, radio and new media branches of the new broadcaster — will be made up of existing journalists from the IBA’s various news departments. However, the establishment of such a body will be complicated and probably require the elimination of a number of duplicating positions.

Even after the 400 employees Koblenz has been authorized to hire have been chosen for the new public body, it’s still unclear how the broadcaster will be established; how it will operate with only 400 employees; where it will operate from; and what it will start broadcasting in six months’ time. The Finance Ministry, meanwhile, is still refusing to allocate it any production budgets.

There is no real agreement on almost any issue among IBA employees. Internal battles are still being fought between the various IBA unions, while employees continue to criticize their union leaders. And a large number of the remaining employees are panicking: Such a situation is a disaster for public broadcasting in Israel, say a number of the IBA’s senior journalists.

“Frightened journalists are weak journalists who prefer to avoid getting into trouble with anyone who could possibly affect their future careers,” said one senior IBA journalist. “The current fragile situation is good for the politicians. And the managers who don’t know if they will move onto the new body cannot exercise authority,” he added.

An additional clause in the public broadcasting law — sponsored by MK Israel Eichler (United Torah Judaism) and Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis (Likud) — aims to “silence” IBA journalists by preventing them from expressing their own opinions on air. This clause was passed and is in effect, even though Netanyahu has said he would work to cancel it.

But there are still some reasons to be optimistic: Filber has stated time and again that his ministry will implement the new public broadcasting law to the letter. Koblenz, meanwhile, is a highly respected professional who intends to implement significant change in public broadcasting, as he previously revolutionized Israel’s educational television, making it much more relevant and creative.

Until all this comes about, though, the IBA employees are still not receiving the answers they need about their own futures.