Stormy debate on public broadcasting is off the air for now

Cabinet vote on reversing plans for IBA delayed by at least three weeks.

November 3, 2016 05:46
3 minute read.

IBA logo. (photo credit: COURTESY OF IBA)

With the coalition at loggerheads over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to reverse government policy on public broadcasting, Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon attempted to compromise on Wednesday. The proposal was originally scheduled for a cabinet vote on Sunday, but it faced a possible tie and was postponed.

Netanyahu and Kahlon, who opposed the proposal for being wasteful, formed a committee of their senior staff to discuss how to adopt it without spending more than already budgeted for public broadcasting. The committee must submit its findings to the ministers within three weeks.

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The previous government voted to liquidate the Israel Broadcast Authority. Saying it was bloated and spent too much, the Knesset passed a law to replace it with a slimmer, more digitally oriented Israel Broadcast Corporation.

The IBC, or “Kan,” was supposed to begin broadcasting on January 1, but in recent months, coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) and Likud ministers grumbled about its supposed left-wing leanings.

Netanyahu, in his capacity as communications minister, announced that he no longer supports its formation and instead seeks to “rehabilitate” the IBA.

A vote on the proposal was scheduled for the cabinet on Sunday, but its chances were unclear.

Though Kulanu, Bayit Yehudi and Shas all oppose Netanyahu’s proposal, they can defeat it in a cabinet vote only if the prime minister does not suppress rebellious voices in the Likud. Transportation Minister Israel Katz, who was undecided Wednesday afternoon, could be the tie breaker.

Earlier Wednesday, IBC chairman Gil Omer brought a presentation to an emergency meeting of the Knesset Economics Committee, touting the broadcaster’s readiness to go on air on January 1, 2017.

In a stormy start to the meeting, Economics Committee chairman MK Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union) poured wrath on the media. “Why are you silent?” he yelled three times.

“Why aren’t you darkening the screens? Why aren’t you out in the streets demonstrating? Where is your solidarity?” In all his years as an MK who has witnessed so many tricky maneuvers and underhanded deals, Cabel said, he had never seen anything to compare with the cynical opportunism exercised in regard to public broadcasting.

Contrary to his impassioned plea for the media to care about democracy and freedom of expression, Cabel has been a strong advocate for closing media outlets in the past.

He was one of the leaders fighting to shut down right-wing radio station Arutz Sheva, which ended with the station’s closure in 2003. In the last Knesset, he proposed a bill that would have effectively shuttered the pro-Netanyahu free daily newspaper Israel Hayom.

Though he was once responsible for the IBA, Cabel sided with Gilad Erdan, who, as former communications minister, spearheaded the plan to get rid of the IBA and set up a more efficient, streamlined public broadcasting service.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Cabel came close to accusing Netanyahu of selling out the state, and criticized Communications Ministry director-general Shlomo Filber for a text saying he could not attend the meeting because was reading Facebook posts.

That was totally unacceptable to Cabel.

In his presentation, Omer said the IBC had fulfilled all its commitments and would be ready on January 1, 2017, with an initial operating budget of NIS 350 million without the need to go a single shekel over.

As for political implications, Omer insisted that no other branch of media had a staff as politically diverse as the IBC.

Shira Greenberg, deputy budget director at the Finance Ministry, said if the IBC is closed and the IBA is rehabilitated, the annual cost would be NIS 370m. The Finance Ministry was at risk, she said, because the anticipated NIS 1.7 billion from the sale of IBA assets was contingent on dismissing all its employees.

Finance Ministry deputy director of wages Efi Malchin objected strenuously to Bitan and MK Yoav Kisch (Likud) involving themselves in wage negotiations for public broadcasting service employees, saying that there is a minister who is authorized to do that and officials working with him in the Finance Ministry.

Yesh Atid MK Yaakov Peri said that the battle for public broadcasting is not a struggle of Right and Left but a war for Israel’s future democracy.

Meanwhile, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira has opened an investigation into irregularities related to both the closure of the IBA and establishment of the IBC.

Shapira said that he wanted to conduct the investigation in real time because the findings would affect the fates of so many people.

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