Israel’s “democratic” institutions are very sensitive to any attempt to stifle the media. TV Channel 10 is a classic case. The mismanaged channel with its huge financial losses should have been closed down a long time ago. Yet in the name of freedom of the press former Supreme Court justice and present president of Israel’s Press Council Dalia Dorner went out of her way to defend the channel.
As reported on August 8, 2009 by Globes, Dorner demanded that Channel 10 be kept alive. Her statement was: “The closure of the channel does not bode well for the freedom of the press. Undoubtedly, Channel 10’s news added a dimension to the media [and] I will be deeply saddened if they are closed down. This is not a legal opinion, but the responsible factors [implying the Second Authority for TV and Radio] must exercise discretion and take us [the press] into consideration. The outcome [of their decision] may be that Israel will be left with only one news channel and a faltering public channel.”
Dorner, throughout the process of the hearing on Channel 10, supported the channel. The outcome, reached through blackmailing the politicians on the eve of elections, was that the government decided to subsidize Channel 10 to the tune of hundreds of millions of shekels from the public’s pockets. The channel continues to operate, Israel’s democracy was saved and so we now have two news channels whose news broadcasts are clones of each other, and a faltering public station.
Israel’s Democracy Institute was not far behind. The IDI’s vice president and former president of the Press Council, Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer, and Dr. Tehila Schwartz-Altshuler, the head of the IDI’s project “Media Reform,” came out very strongly in favor of Channel 10 in November 2012. Relating to the question whether the channel should be allowed to further delay paying its debts to the state the two luminaries stated: “We wish to express our deep concern in view of the decision not to allow an additional moratorium on Channel 10 debts, a move that will result in its closure. We believe that closure of Channel 10 would adversely affect the marketplace of ideas and opinions.”
The Israeli daily newspaper Makor Rishon was in dire straits. Its owner, Shlomo Ben-Zvi, went bankrupt and the paper went into receivership.
The receiver, accountant Chen Berditschev, succeeded in selling the paper to Sheldon Adelson, the owner of the Israel Hayom daily, the most widely circulated paper in Israel.
The purchase was finally approved yesterday by Professor David Gilo, Israel’s antitrust commissioner.
Gilo was rather slow in giving his decision even though he was fully aware that many of the employees of Makor Rishon have been either sent home or have not been receiving their salary and that the format of the paper has been downsized.
During this whole process, up until this week the IDI and the Press Council kept mum. Makor Rishon is right-wing in its views and its readership lives mostly outside of Tel Aviv. It’s closure is not deemed a threat to Israel’s democracy. Quite the opposite: anything which would restrict the power of Sheldon Adelson is considered as essential for preserving the freedom of the press.
Channel 10’s Raviv Druker even published a column on the channel’s website decrying self-righteously the discounts Adelson would be receiving if his purchase of Makor Rishon were approved.
During the Channel 10 saga, one of us (EP) was publicly denounced by the head of Channel 10 for daring to suggest its closure. The very idea which we promoted, that taxpayer money should not be spent on a failing media company, was considered to be in bad taste, even “cruel” and “evil” to the employees. Yet, when Makor Rishon was facing closure, when its employees went hungry, there was a deafening silence.
Makor Rishon’s editors were aware of their inferior status. Last Friday, in a page-one editorial, they noted: “We remember very well the public outcry when Channel 10 was on the verge of closure, and listen with heavy heart to the present sound of silence. The politicians are silent, the leading journalists are silent, even the Press Council is silent.”
This past Sunday, Israel’s Media Watch sent a letter to the Press Council and the IDI asking whether they intend to intervene. My Israel also questioned the Press Council.
The pressure was partially successful and on the same Sunday, Dorner responded to My Israel stating that: “Freedom of the press, which is necessary for democracy’s existence, is not reflected only in preventing governmental involvement. It is important that the press be multi-faceted and that it represent all parts of society.
Makor Rishon, which is a good newspaper on its own, has an important place in the media mosaic in Israel and it should be preserved.”
Our letter to the Israel Democracy Institute has thus far remained unanswered.
Yesterday, Kremnitzer in a radio interview did unequivocally call for prevention of closure of the paper.
The editors of Makor Rishon fought to preserve the very existence of their newspaper. They managed to convince an impressive list of leftwing journalists – Keren Neubach, Moshe Negbi, Yaron London and Motti Kirschenbaum – who signed an ad headlined “A voice of protest in view of the imminent closure of Makor Rishon.” The ad stated, in part: “It is well known that the there is a heavy cloud of dispute hanging over the Israel Hayom newspaper, due to its method of free circulation, its editorial policies and its aims – nevertheless we believe that this difference of opinions should not have any effect on the question of ratifying the purchase of Makor Rishon [by Adelson].”
Israel’s Media Watch was also asked to sign the ad, but we refused. In our view, the closure of Makor Rishon would be a real blow to Israel’s media.
For years as well as during these past weeks, we have done all in our power to support the very existence of the paper. However, to sign an ad which feels it necessary to strike at Israel Hayom at the same time as part of justification of support for Makor Rishon is simply not right.
It is sad that those people who for years have been trying to convince the Israeli public that freedom of the press is essential for upholding our democracy were not able to stand as one when a right-wing media organ was threatened. Their proclamations ring hollow. They are not talking about democracy, but rather about preservation of their own stranglehold on Israel’s freedom of speech.
Makor Rishon has survived, but the process was painful and will leave wounds which will not heal so quickly.
And all because Makor Rishon is not “one of us.” In this period between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Independence Day, we can only wish that Israel’s democracy does not succumb to those who abuse its freedoms.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imw.org.il).