Analysis: Will Shas's rising star crack down on his voters' beloved pirate stations?

June 7, 2007 23:29
2 minute read.

Visit any haredi "pirate" radio station and you'll hear a long litany of travails. Like the proverbial wandering Jew, the illegal stations have to keep moving, from cramped rental apartment to attic and basement, lashing the antenna to the roof, always a step ahead of the law, in the shape of the police or the Communications Ministry inspectors. Sometimes it is irate neighbors who have suddenly found out that the signal from the clandestine transmitter has blocked their reception of regular radio stations - and, who knows, perhaps it's even radioactive? And so they trek from place to place, never more than a few months in the same location. But the really amazing thing about these stations, whose fare consists of rabbis' sermons, phone-ins with halachic queries and a wide variety of hassidic and other Jewish music, is that whenever they're caught, and the broadcasting and studio equipment is confiscated, they launch an appeal on one of their affiliated pirate stations, and in a couple of days, enough donations have flowed in to buy replacements. None of this money comes from wealthy donors. The listeners are typical low-income haredim and newly religious. But these radio stations are their main suppliers of entertainment and news. So, once in a while, they are prepared to pay. Exactly what kind of threat the "pirate" stations pose to air-traffic control at Ben-Gurion Airport is still unclear. Is it an "aviation disaster just waiting to happen," as we've been hearing from the pilots' association and Ben-Gurion personnel, or just a minor nuisance? Surely if it was so easy to down an airliner using primitive transmitters, terrorists would have tried it for themselves by now. As it is, the station that caused the disruption in this case was Palestinian and has been traced to the Ramallah area. The air traffic controllers' threat to shut down the airport on Thursday got them a promise from the government to seriously sanction the offenders. But the pirate stations aren't going to go away without a ruthless crackdown, and that doesn't seem to be in the offing. Because, for at least 10 percent of the population, this is their only form of electronic media. They don't own televisions, and are wary of hooking up to the Internet. Radio is the one type of electronic media accessible to them. And there is only one legal radio station broadcasting to the ultra-Orthodox community. The privately-owned Radio Kol Hai cannot fulfill the needs of every stream of the haredi world. Moreover, lack of space on the spectrum and the business interests of the current station owners mean there will never be enough legal stations to service such a diverse community, at least until Israeli radio finally enters the digital age. Traditionally, the issue of pirate stations has been connected to Shas, whose rabbis and political leaders broadcast daily over the clandestine airwaves, and during election campaigns use them to bring out the vote. But what happens when the communications minister is himself a member of Shas? Ariel Attias must have heaved a sigh of relief when it turned out this week's offender was Palestinian and not one of his constituents. But the strike threats forced him to make a commitment to more zealously enforce the broadcasting laws. Attias is seen as the rising star of haredi politics and has so far proved himself surprisingly pragmatic. Last week, he said that he was against stopping Army Radio from broadcasting on Shabbat. That, however, was just maintaining the status quo on state and religion. The stations pose a much greater problem. Acting against the pirate stations would be a direct strike on Shas's core constituency.

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