Netanyahu vs. the Israeli Public

It’s obvious that the prime minister and his acolytes are refusing to acknowledge the fact that public broadcasting in a democracy is not the government’s mouthpiece or an additional platform for political sparring.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, May 2016.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Public broadcasting in Israel didn’t begin in the most auspicious of circumstances. The broadcasts of Israel Radio were under the direct control of the Prime Minister’s Office when the state was established. And even in 1967, when the Broadcasting Authority Law was passed, the new body was defined as a state-run broadcasting service, with all appointments still controlled by the government.

Over the years, there was growing recognition that public broadcasting should not be a pawn in the hands of politicians and that it must be operated independently. To achieve this, it was proposed that a buffer be created between the government and the public broadcasting body. But despite the clear recommendations of 14 professional committees, such legislation was repeatedly delayed or neutered because politicians refused to relinquish their hold on public broadcasting.

However, a rare set of circumstances aligned in 2014, setting the stage for historic legislation spearheaded by then-Communications Minister Gilad Erdan, which would lead to the most effective severance yet between the government and public broadcasting. The situation was brought about by a deterioration in the standing of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, thanks to competition from commercial channels, as well as a civil awakening that demanded a free and fair public media.

In addition, there was opposition to the benefits being granted to privileged groups by the IBA, which was run in a wasteful and corrupt manner. These conditions led to vigorous reform and plans to establish the new, professional public broadcasting corporation, detached from political influence.

Yet now, some politicians are trying to reverse the situation. They want to regain control and run the new corporation and its budget, resetting the timing of its launch, possibly even shutting it down completely and annulling this important reform.

Most prominent among them is Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who, in a blatant display of ignorance regarding the meaning of democracy, complained at a cabinet meeting on Sunday: “It’s inconceivable that we establish a corporation we won’t control. The minister should control it. What, we’ll invest money and they’ll broadcast whatever they want?”

Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis added, “There are no Likud members there, nor Mizrahi Jews and representatives of the outlying areas. Habayit Hayehudi doesn’t care – it put religious-Zionist people there.”

And coalition chief David Bitan (Likud) submitted a bill that would shutter the corporation and let the IBA continue as is.

Above them all hovers the spirit of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has developed a deep sense of paranoia in relation to the media and is constantly trying to control it in ways more reminiscent of totalitarian regimes.

It’s obvious that Netanyahu and his acolytes are refusing to acknowledge the fact that public broadcasting in a democracy is not the government’s mouthpiece or an additional platform for political sparring. Israel now has a historic opportunity to create a high-quality broadcasting service. If politicians persist with their campaigns of unwarranted pressure, this opportunity will be lost.