Our MKs, Exposed at Last

The Knesset was packed last Wednesday, by its standards. No less than 58 out of the 120 Knesset members hurried to the plenum to vote on the private member's bill tabled by the Likud's Gilad Erdan.

What was the issue at stake? Surely it was something of historic moment, the sort of thing for which legislative houses exist.

Coalition chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki was the first to grasp the gravity of the moment. That morning, Yitzhaki suddenly announced that coalition discipline would not apply. The coalition members could vote against the government, if they wish. Thus the elected representatives were granted the freedom to vote as their conscience dictated.

After the vote, it turned out that it had not been necessary for the Knesset members to trouble themselves en masse: the bill passed by a huge majority of 55 to 3. Who were the three opponents? Tzipi Livni, foreign minister and chairman of the Legislative committee; Eitan Cabel, the man in charge of the Israel Broadcasting Authority; and Environment Minister Gideon Ezra.

And what was the vote all about? The vote that had so many Knesset members voting against the government?

It was about extending the franchises of 14 local radio stations without holding tenders.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the story of Israeli local and general government in a nutshell. The government does not govern and the Knesset is preoccupied with the private interests of its members.

Here is a recap of this local radio issue.

Between ten and twelve years ago the state granted franchises to 14 groups, to operate local radio stations. Because of bandwidth issues, radio frequencies are a limited national resource. The franchises were issued via an open tender process, in which a multitude of business entities vied. The tenders set the franchise terms at four years, with an option to extend by four more.

 Gilad Erdan

After four years, the licenses were naturally extended by four more. As the eight-year term neared its close, certain Knesset members tabled a private member's bill that would extend the licenses by four more years (to a total of twelve). The communications minister at the time, Reuven Rivlin, supported the bill, which passed.

Meanwhile, technology advanced. Three years ago the Communications Ministry decided to open Israeli broadcasting to digital radio. The station owners hastened to jump on the bandwagon, but insisted they deserved relief on certain tender conditions, because digital radio would compete with them (note that meanwhile, their original tender had long since expired).

The government folded like a wet napkin. The station owners were granted more lenient terms, including the promise that they'd automatically be allowed to run digital radio stations.

Seeing that things were going their way, the radio station owners decided to push the envelope. They announced that because pirate radio stations (which have basically no advertising) were operating, they viewed themselves as exempt from the duty to pay the state for use of frequencies.

For years the stations paid nothing for frequencies and then the Finance and Communications ministries advised the stations that their licenses had expired. That announcement had the radio owners rolling on the floor, helpless with laughter, and the stations merrily broadcast on and on, with no license or franchise in hand.

Funny old government

So: the plan for digital radio to compete with local radio is gathering dust on a Finance Ministry shelf somewhere, and meanwhile the local radio stations are operating without licenses, a fact that seems to make them all the more precious to our elected representatives.

This was the situation when Erdan began lobbying for his bill to extend their licenses a third time.

On November 12, the Legislative ministerial committee decided to oppose Erdan's bill, because it found no grounds to give the station owners a present of a public asset without a tender process, especially after they'd already had their franchises extended twice, and especially as they were ignoring the terms of their licenses, and especially since digital radio never had materialized.

After the Finance, Communications and Justice ministries explained their position against giving away state assets to fat cats, and after the ministerial Legislative committee voted against the bill, one might think the issue might drop from the agenda.

But last Wednesday 55 Knesset members demonstrated how the state is really run. Avigdor Yitzhaki, coalition chairman, the man supposed to represent the government in the Knesset, declared it a vote of conscience and allowed the Knesset members to vote against the government.

Record attendance in the House, the vast majority by which Erdan's bill passed, and Yitzhaki's decision that the fate of local radio franchises should be a matter of 'conscience' - this is our parliament.

Why on earth did 55 Knesset members harness their might to advance the cause of a handful of businessmen (well known ones, note ye)? The very same businessmen could have simply vied over a tender. Why aren't the parliamentarians allowing everybody in the land to contend for the right to run a radio station? Is their conscience tormented in the wee hours over the evidently hideous possibility that the ownership over a radio station change, that somebody new might come in?

Actually, the answer is simple. Our elected representatives spat in our faces and trampled the public interest. They did not see the people in front of their eyes. All they saw was a vision of an open mike at a friendly local radio station.

The supporters of Erdan's bill to extend the franchises without tender will get air time. They will get interviewed. Many local stations have broadcasts devoted to this very sort of thing: they give the dais over to some Knesset member, and ahead of elections, air time is precious.

There are natural resources far greater than local radio frequencies that our elected representatives hand over for free to their pet tycoons. But there are few cases that so glaringly expose their real face, and the sheer poverty of government in Israel.

The local radio station owners claim that most of them are losing money. So what? Since when are losses a reason to extend one's franchise? It is part of the risk one takes when entering a business. Also, if they're losing money, why the devil do they want their franchises extended, anyway?

Maybe there's no need to actually check if their stations are losing money; we can trust these tycoons to make their profits from their control over the media in other ways. For instance, note their influence over Knesset members and politicians, as was evident in that extraordinary vote of 55 to 3 that selected the interest of a handful of businessmen over the interest of the great, anonymous public.