The special Knesset committee that was formed to discuss the future of public broadcasting convened on Wednesday, chaired by Yesh Atid MK Karin Elharar. The cancellation of the television license fee and the future of public broadcasting were on the agenda.
Employees of the Israel Broadcasting Authority who are campaigning against the decision by Communications Minister Gilad Erdan to close down the IBA contend that license fee revenues are vital to ensure the continued operation of public broadcasting.
Erdan, however told the Knesset committee that the new public broadcasting entity that he wants to create instead of the IBA will not cost the public a single agora.
The key problem, said Erdan, is that the IBA has low ratings and is very costly to run. Referring to Channel 1, he argued that it has fewer and fewer viewers, and its system of operations is inefficient. Moreover, viewer preferences have changed and this means that new models for public broadcasting have to be found and developed in order to meet current market demands.
A new media division, he said, will work on strengthening content for Arabic-language and youth channels.
The new model will be much more cost efficient than the current model he promised, and will save millions of shekels per annum in what Erdan perceives to be needless expenditure.
He said that cancellation of the license fee was made possible by the Finance Ministry’s agreement to forfeit part of its revenues from the IBA. This means that public broadcasting is possible at no cost to the public. “Anyone who says differently is lying,” he insisted.
Backing up Erdan, Finance Minister Yair Lapid declared that the new legislation would facilitate genuine public broadcasting free of political pressures and without the license fee that weighs heavily on every citizen. Israelis will receive a new, relevant and competitive public broadcasting channel which is transparent, innovative and responsible, with the right cultural components and an efficient composition, he said. The new entity would reduce the annual public broadcasting budget by NIS 300 million.
The IBA, according to Lapid, has lost its way and its relevance.
Its value to the citizen has been vastly reduced, its costs increased and its reliability has been diminished through political bickering.
“Politicians should not be involved with communications” said Lapid, making it clear that this applied to prime ministers, finance ministers and communications ministers. “We politicians will not have a toehold in the new public broadcasting entity” Lapid asserted.
Kobi Amsalem, who heads the salaries and wages department at the Finance Ministry, said that several meetings had already been held with representatives of the journalists and other IBA employees, and that these will continue as frequently as possible in order to establish the best conditions for dismissals.
Ram Landes, who headed the committee established by Erdan to look into the way public broadcasting operates in Israel and to make recommendations based on its findings, said that the recommendation had been made to serve the interests of the public.
He had been surprised to learn that the IBA has some 2,000 employees, because despite strenuous efforts by his committee, its members had not been able to receive exact payroll figures. If the IBA unions had agreed that 700 workers be dismissed, this would indicate that the IBA has no more than 1,600 employees, he said.
Likud-Beytenu MK Hamad Amar said that it was important to get an exact figure, because this was vital to the decision- making process.
Eyad Harb, the chairman of the Journalists Union at Israel Radio, said that the journalists were in favor of reforms but it was unacceptable to simply throw all the IBA employees into the street. As for so-called meetings to negotiate severance pay conditions: “We were barely aware of them,” he said.
Rotem Avrutzky, chair of the Tel Aviv Journalists Union, said that the union had worked for years in an attempt to amend the Broadcasting Authority Law and to release the IBA from political shackles, but now that the political network has abandoned its responsibility for public broadcasting, the hands of the workers are being tied.
Several MKs defended the IBA against closure. Dov Khenin of Hadash argued that it was incorrect to charge that the broadcasts were no good.
What was important was to determine the real problem he said. Was it with the journalists, the technicians, or with management? He suggested that this be investigated before going any further with new legislation.
Labor MK Nachman Shai, a former chairman of the IBA, wanted to safeguard the interests of Israel Radio in the new legislation, but Erdan responded that there was no statutory separation between radio and television.
Meretz MK Issawi Frej said that Elharar’s committee was supposed to reach a decision on the closure of the IBA within the next month and a half. It was impossible to find solutions for so many employees in so short a time frame, he stated, adding that the whole process was undemocratic.