Is Benjamin Netanyahu intent on controlling Israel’s media?

The prime minister took his war with the media up a notch.

November 26, 2016 10:43

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen here on the monitors at Channel 10 News before an interview last year. (photo credit: REUTERS)

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu took his war with Israel’s media up another notch November 7, when his office launched a scathing and unprecedented personal attack on investigative journalist Ilana Dayan. The extraordinary frontal assault came in response to a program Dayan had made about the goings on in the prime minister’s inner circle and, in particular, the role played by his wife, Sara.

“The time has come to unmask Ilana Dayan who has proven, once again, that she has not even a drop of professional integrity,” read a four-page statement by the Prime Minister’s Office that a visibly shaken Dayan read out, on camera, in its entirety, over a full six minutes.

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The statement went on to accuse Dayan of being one of the ringleaders of an “orchestrated plot” against the prime minister, aimed at toppling the executive and replacing him with a left-wing government.

But that was just the beginning.

“Dayan’s hatred of the prime minister is known,” continued the statement, adding that she served as “cover for political propaganda” and “is a member of the extreme Left” who “treats Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria as land theft.”

Beyond calling the program “a recycling of warped gossip and vicious lies,” the statement did not respond to the issues raised in the broadcast.

But it was the closing argument of the PMO’s statement ‒ believed to have been composed by Netanyahu’s hardline communications adviser Ran Baratz, that perhaps reveals more than anything about what the prime minister really wants.

“Dayan’s show this evening demonstrates perfectly why the media industry needs to undergo reform. The prime minister is determined to open the market up to competition, which will add a variety of additional opinions, as well as an efficient national broadcaster. He will do this – even if Ilana Dayan continues her propaganda broadcasts.”

Netanyahu, who holds the communications portfolio, has vowed to reform Israel’s media market, saying it lacks pluralism and is not representative. However, his critics on both the Right and Left charge that what the prime minister really seeks is a divide and rule strategy that will weaken media outlets by making them fight over limited resources.

“The Israeli public has the right to have free choice in television, and that is what I am working toward,” the prime minister said at a Knesset debate in July. “Once there were only two cellular companies, two bus companies, and two airlines. Now, there are more because we opened the market to competition. That will also be the case with the television market.”

That debate, followed a deal between Netanyahu and Histadrut labor federation chairman Avi Nissenkoren to delay the launch of a new public broadcasting corporation that was slated to replace the current Israel Broadcasting Authority, which is mired in debt and suffers from low ratings.

The new body, the Israel Broadcast Corporation, known as Kan, Hebrew for "here," was initiated by Netanyahu ally Gilad Erdan, currently the public security minister and strategic affairs minister, in 2014 when he was communications minister. It had been scheduled to commence broadcasting at the beginning of 2017, but Netanyahu, who originally agreed to postpone the launch to 2018, has soured against the move claiming it was a waste of public funds and that it made more sense to rehabilitate the original broadcasting authority.

Opposition lawmakers have not bought into Netanyahu’s claim that the move is down to pure financial logic. The Zionist Union’s Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin accused the prime minister of carrying out a “crusade against free press,” while Yesh Atid’s Yaakov Peri said, “The battle for public broadcasting is a battle for the future of Israel’s democracy.”

SUSPICIONS THAT the move to shut down the corporation were motivated by a desire for political pliancy were strengthened when Netanyahu’s Likud party whip David Bitan, who introduced a bill to shut Kan down, revealed that he had followed the Facebook postings of its chief executives and accused them of left-wing leanings.

Meanwhile, a vote on the future of the IBC has, for the moment, been postponed amid a political crisis with Netanyahu’s coalition partner Moshe Kahlon, head of the Kulanu Party, and himself a former communications minister, who wants to see the IBC go on air.

Oren Persico, of the independent media watchdog website Seventh Eye, says Netanyahu “wants to control the media and make it dependent on government.”

He explains that the print media market has already, to an extent, become dependent on government since the launch of Israel HaYom, a pro-Netanyahu daily freebie backed by American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, which caused the collapse of its economic model. Television could go down the same route, he says, noting that Reshet and Keshet, the two franchisees that make up the top-rated Channel 2 TV station, may be forced to split and run their own news broadcast operations.

Israel Hayom, Persico tells The Jerusalem Report, takes rock-bottom prices for its ads and floods the market with papers while racking up losses that are estimated to be in the millions, and that means that other papers have to be more reliant on paid government ads and tenders.

Indeed, Freedom House, a US-based NGO that reports on political rights and civil liberties, in April, downgraded Israel’s press ranking to “partly free” citing “the growing impact of Israel HaYom.”

Hostility between Netanyahu and the media began after he was elected prime minister in 1996, after beating out Shimon Peres following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

“The mainstream media saw Netanyahu as responsible for the incitement that led to Rabin’s murder and never forgave him,” says Persico.

That spiraled into a vicious circle of mutual distrust that took a turn for the worse when Israel Hayom was launched in 2007, and gradually deteriorated over the years.

“Things in Israel have gone very, very wrong,” says Zvi Reich, a communications lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and currently a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

“Netanyahu very often didn’t get fair coverage, but his relations with the media have reached a very dangerous point. If relations between the Right and the media tend to be ambivalent, in Israel it has become open conflict,” he tells The Report.

“It’s a little bit like a children’s spat,” he says. “The question becomes who started it. But it’s difficult to say who started it and that’s not the interesting question. We need a responsible adult.

I think it’s become too late for Netanyahu to improve the situation or for the media to improve the situation. I think we need an external reconciliation committee to put the genie back in the bottle” While Reich says that both sides share the blame for “taking the dialogue to intolerable octaves” and that the media have “gone off the rails” with its response to Netanyahu, the prime minister has become obsessive in his dealings with the press and has become sensitive to the point that he has lost his “media epidermis.”

“When I look at the energy Netanyahu invests, the amount of time, at the number of channels he operates on, then you can see he is obsessive in his dealings with the media.

“The media is taking up an unreasonable amount of time, especially for a Middle Eastern leader who already has a lot on his plate,” says Reich.

That obsession has intensified since Netanyahu decided to keep the communications portfolio for himself, when he formed his fourth government last year. Reich describes the fact that Netanyahu holds the portfolio as a “severe pathology.”

“The prime minister is the media regulator at the same time as he is its biggest customer.

He shapes reality at the same time as regulating those who depict reality. He attacks the media at the same time as he needs the media. It’s too much,” says Reich.

He fears that the current situation poses a threat to the independence of Israeli journalism and warns that, in the current climate, someone may decide to take matters into their own hands.

“There are already journalists who, today, cannot enter areas of Judea and Samaria,” says Reich. “When I talk to journalists I hear fear, I hear paralysis, I hear journalists who censor themselves. Very problematic winds are blowing through newsrooms in Israel.”

Furthermore, he warns that Netanyahu is operating in a two-pronged pincer movement, on the one hand tagging the media as left wing, unpatriotic and treacherous, while at the same time using the role of communications minister and regulator of the industry to squeeze it economically, claiming he merely wants to open it up to competition.

“The danger is,” says Reich, “that the media will be left without the necessary oxygen for the existence of independent journalism.”

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