At a Knesset session last week marking the anniversary of the death of Zeev Jabotinsky, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the opposition “raises high the cause of freedom of expression [while standing] against opening the media market to competition. That of course is not pluralism, that is not liberalism, it is something else closer to Bolshevism. The people will judge at the ballot box, that is Jabotinsky’s creed.”
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Netanyahu was speaking out against criticism of the government’s conduct over the public broadcasting corporation, after a cabinet meeting in which Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev said, “What’s a public broadcasting system worth if we don’t control it? The minister must control it. We’re going to provide money and they’ll broadcast what they want?”
Netanyahu distanced himself from Regev’s remarks, adding that he did not support coalition chairman David Bitan’s bill to prevent the establishment of the corporation. Netanyahu even supported the 2014 law calling for the establishment of the new public broadcasting corporation, and proudly heralded the cancellation of television licensing fees and the breakup of the Broadcasting Authority in his 2015 election campaign.
But in a meeting in his office with media figures from Channel 1 and Israel Radio, it seemed the cat got out of the bag. Netanyahu the liberal, the pluralist, the lover of competition who supports a variegated media with a variety of opinions, was replaced by a politician still trying to ensure an ideological hold over public broadcasting.
Netanyahu admitted during that meeting that he “regrets” the establishment of the corporation, which he said “escaped my attention” while he was preoccupied with the 2014 war in Gaza. He also expressed concern when he asked, “What if everyone in the corporation were people from Breaking the Silence?” as Nati Tucker reported in Haaretz on Tuesday.
Netanyahu, who excels at history and rhetoric, is only reiterating Regev’s vitriolic remarks. After he tried, with the help of Histadrut labor federation chairman Avi Nissenkorn, to bring about a 15-month delay in the launch of the new corporation’s broadcasts, he is now renewing his assaults on an entity that does not yet exist. He also continues unceasingly in his attempt to subjugate Channel 2 and its news company to his ministry, and in his involvement in the tender for the Knesset television channel.
This position is patently undemocratic and contradicts Jabotinsky’s true doctrine that a free press is an essential part of democracy. Competition and diversity of opinion are a good thing. But Netanyahu proves again and again that his real purpose is to silence critics and rivals. He works at this with such intense devotion that military operations of the magnitude of the Gaza war are needed to allow democratic initiatives to slip below his radar. And so Netanyahu should transfer the Communications Ministry to another minister who can handle the important processes underway in the media market in a businesslike, professional manner.