Analysis

What Does the Future Hold for Army Radio?

Now that Avigdor Lieberman has placed the station under his the Defense Ministry's aegis, the question is whether it can truly be shielded from politics

Israeli soldiers walk out of radio station Galei Tzahal, or Army Radio headquarters in Jaffa on July 11, 2016.
Tomer Appelbaum

There was a quiet ceremony at the end of October at Army Radio’s studios in Jaffa transferring responsibility for Army Radio from the Israel Defense Force Education Corps to the IDF’s manpower division. The soldiers staffing the station were given new ID tags reflecting the change. Even though the event was little noticed, top brass who knew the station saw it as just a first step by IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot to try to rid the army of responsibility for Army Radio.

The stations – two stations actually, Army Radio, which broadcasts mostly news and public affairs programming, and popular music channel Galgalatz – have for decades been part of the Education Corps, not only organizationally but also as a matter of philosophy. If Army Radio had a reason to exist, it was to instill the IDF’s values among the public at large.

“It’s over. Eisenkot transferred Army Radio from the Education Corps to throw it out of the army,” said a senior official familiar with the station’s management. And this week came the report in Haaretz that, subject to approval by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman had decided to transfer the station from the army to his ministry.

That could mean that the station will be directly under Lieberman’s authority, raising the specter of political influence over its content. The last time the prospect of such a move came up, at the beginning of the year, Lieberman relented in the face of opposition, but this time the step appears to be final.

It also comes despite earlier objections from Defense Ministry Director General Udi Adam, who in October of last year issued a report arguing against the move – in part over concern about political influence on the station. He suggested instead that it remain on the air, but recommended possible changes, including oversight by a public committee or its transfer from the army to the country’s public broadcasting corporation, known as Kan.

Following political pressure at the beginning of the year and discussions with Mendelblit, Adam reconsidered and agreed that the station could be transferred to the Defense Ministry while still maintaining its independence. And with the passage of time and the appointment two months ago of Shimon Elkabetz as station director, who gets along better with Lieberman than his predecessor did, the way has been paved to move ahead with the transfer.

All of this raises the question as to how the station will operate under the ministry’s aegis. This is how the process appears to be coming together, shaped in part by directives from Mendelblit.

Organizational structure: Army Radio will cease being an army unit and will be a government entity within the Defense Ministry, but with a measure of organizational independence. The ministry won’t have direct authority over the station and the attorney general’s office is seeking to create total separation between the station and the political level when it comes to hiring of station staff. At this point, no clear rules have been set, but Mendelblit intends to require a system that will shield the hiring of senior staff, including managers and on-air presenters, from political influence.

Oversight: The station will report only to the Defense Ministry and not to any other government ministry, such as the Education Ministry. The current ban on political interference in the station’s broadcasts will remain. In addition, the station staff will report to the Defense Ministry director general and not the defense minister. Mendelblit is also recommending that a public advisory committee be created, headed by a high-profile public figure, such as a retired Supreme Court justice.

Funding: Attorney General Mendelblit has also ordered that the station be assured sufficient funding. The concern is that otherwise, even if there is no political interference in broadcast content, politicians could pressure the station with the threat of funding cuts.