Serious Alarm: Israeli Democracy in Danger

Netanyahu's obsession with the new public broadcaster shows that all he really cares about is keeping his seat.

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Israeli journalists demonstrate against the compromise forged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Treasury Minister Moshe ahlon with respect to the new public broadcaster, Kan, on April 1, 2017, outside government offices in Tel Aviv
Journalists protesting the compromise between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Finance Minister Kahlon, regarding Kan, in Tel Aviv on Saturday.Credit: Ilan Assayag

This time it’s a genuine alarm. Our democracy is in danger. That’s the inevitable conclusion from the case of Kan, the new public broadcasting corporation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to get rid of Kan and succeeded. He wanted to diminish and intimidate the entire world of media – and succeeded in doing that, too. And without a free, brave and strong media operating independently of the government, there is no democracy.

The press is the fourth estate. Its primary role is to criticize the government, to expose its dark sides, the corruption and the decisions that stem from personal interests, and to bring them to light. Without information, investigations and critiques of the regime, the public can’t make an informed decision about its politicians. Without a fighting press, the public can’t base its choices at the polls on accurate information. Without the fear that the deeds of the government may be revealed, we will get an oligarchy that will worry only about itself, along with a poor and corrupt country.

Many are asking about the premier’s obsession with Kan. Why is he devoting so much time and effort to it? Because he understands that the media sets public opinion. People watch, listen, read, and form a point of view. They have no other way of processing reality. That’s why Kan is important. It’s part of a large puzzle that in the end determines how people vote.

Moreover, Netanyahu knows that the media influences what politicians do, and also impacts decisions made by the attorney general and even by judges. Right now the premier is in a delicate situation, because there are police investigations against him – one about the presents and benefits he allegedly received from tycoons, and the other relating to his alleged horse-trading with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes.

If Kan is an independent agency with journalists who truly aim to succeed, naturally what they produce will include a substantial dose of criticism of Netanyahu's actions, including investigative reports that could pressure the attorney general to charge him with crimes. That’s why he decided to wipe out Kan, with no regard to how much it will cost and how it will affect democracy. All he cares about is his seat, because he was chosen to rule.

So we ended up with this lousy agreement between Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, giving us with a disabled broadcasting corporation, whose heart, the news department, has been removed, leaving entertainment, cooking and nature programs. News will continue to be broadcast by the old, despised Israel Broadcasting Authority, whose executives will be chosen by the government.

The IBA is currently controlled by a Netanyahu associate, Bari Bar-Zion, and all the journalists there know which side of their bread is buttered. It’s also clear that the news corporation that is slated to be set up eventually to replace the IBA will never actually emerge. The temporary will become permanent.

Two people have been battered by this process. The first is Kahlon, who was dragged into a confrontation with Netanyahu about freedom of expression and the budget – and lost. The operation of two public broadcasting companies that are hostile to one another will cost a lot more than 700 million shekels ($193 million) a year, not to mention the billion shekels already invested in Kan and the compensation that will have to be paid to dismissed workers and production companies. It’s no coincidence that people from the treasury’s budget division were excluded from discussions on the Netanyahu-Kahlon agreement, as was Deputy Attorney General Avi Licht, who was known to oppose the deal.

The second victim is Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who was revealed to be weak and submissive to Netanyahu. He provided a legal umbrella for the invalid and twisted agreement that eviscerated Kan. He gave Netanyahu a legal imprimatur to deal with this issue, despite his obvious conflict of interest. Now it’s clear why the prime minister appointed him to his position.

So that’s how Netanyahu succeeded in leading us to the worst of all possible worlds: overpriced, divided, distorted and sick public broadcasting, budget overruns and a serious blow to freedom of expression and democracy. The public deserves public broadcasting free of politicians, but if the conditions assuring that do not exist, it would be better to just shut it down.

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