Leviev Has Emissaries in the Knesset, Charges Tibi

"Lev Leviev, the owner of the Russian television channel, has emissaries in the Knesset. He has direct representatives in the Knesset who are working on his behalf," MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al) charged yesterday at a joint meeting of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs and Economic Affairs committees.

The stormy session was held to discuss a proposed law that would exempt Channel 9, Leviev's Russian language channel, from paying "carriage fees" to both the HOT cable company and the Yes satellite broadcaster for carrying the station.

The Knesset members approved bringing the bill to the Knesset floor for its first reading into law - despite the government's objections.

"It seems someone wants to grease Leviev," Tibi accused. "Instead of serving the public, they serve Leviev."

Tibi's comments were made when it turned out the bill would be discussed by a joint committee - chaired by Ofir Akunis (Likud), the chairman of the Economic Affairs Committee - but all of whose members are from the former Soviet Union. Leviev himself hails from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic.

Tibi noted that communications issues are normally handled by the Economic Affairs Committee only.

"This is the work of a cartel. We need to change the makeup of the committee," said Tibi.

Carriage fees must be paid by independent channels - those that sell their own subscriptions or have only advertising revenue - to Yes and HOT for using their broadcasting infrastructure. The Communications Ministry set such fees at NIS 2.1 million a year for Yes and NIS 2.4 million for HOT. Yes' fees are currently being reexamined and a decision is expected next week.

At the moment, only channels 9 and 24 pay such carriage fees. Channel 24 has already reached an agreement with HOT and Yes, but the proposed law will exempt both channels from having to pay the fees. Seven lobbyists attended the meeting on the behalf of Channel 9.

The government's position is that this is a financial dispute between commercial bodies and so there is no need to intervene - especially not through legislation, explained one Justice Ministry representative.

Yes CEO Ron Eilon told the committee that the purpose of the law was to "make one company rich," referring to Leviev, adding there was no such precedent for the Knesset to intervene in such a commercial issue between companies.