A central role of government is regulation and oversight. The regulation of restaurants, building standards, educational standards and such is necessary and, in principle, serves the population as a whole. At the same time, regulatory agencies often have too much power, power that stifles private initiative and competition.
And so the question is: who then regulates the regulators? Certainly not the government, especially not in a democracy where the professional regulatory staff outlives by years any elected politician.
In a democracy, the job falls to the media.
Despite criticism, the media very often is helpful in this regard. Radio and TV programs often bring up cases in which the rights of the individual have been trodden upon due to one governmental agency or the other. But there is one sector which for many years has been almost free to do what it wants without fear of the media: the media regulatory agencies.
Their power in Israel is much too great – and they do not hesitate to use it. It is the Second Authority for TV and Radio (SA TR) and the Council for Cable TV and Satellite Broadcasting (CCTSB) which for many years have prevented the development of a free competitive media atmosphere.
Well into the twenty-first century Israel’s radio broadcasts are deeply mired in the middle of the twentieth. National news on the airwaves is controlled by the publicly funded media organs – Galatz, the army radio station, and the Israel Broadcasting Authority. The SA TR has for years fought tooth and nail to prevent truly free radio broadcasting in Israel. The media itself has been silent on this matter.
The regional radio stations, organized in the Second Authority framework, are part of this deal. They do not let their journalists expose SA TR’s conflict of interest, which is to hold on to its regulatory power at the expense of the public’s right to free airwaves.
In return, SA TR safeguards the turf of the regional radio stations. It does not permit the opening of new ones, or puts in place impossible regulatory conditions.
The public pays the price by being cheated out of multiple voices, news and opinions as well as cultural diversity.
The situation was not any better on TV.
For many years only channels two and 10 were allowed to broadcast news. The result was boring, one-sided and all too often post-Zionist news programs. Of course, if the prime minister attacks the media this is immediately interpreted as an attempt to control it. A better alternative is, as we have done over the years, to point out to the prime minister, especially in view of the fact that he is also the communications minister, that if he really wanted to he could change the situation by reducing the powers of the regulatory agencies.
In fact, almost under the radar, this is precisely what he and his director general, Shlomo Filber, have been doing. Israel Channel 20 TV went on air on June 30, 2014. It was a cable station, operating under the watchful eyes of the CCTSB. Its mandate was to provide “Jewish” TV. That is, to assure that viewers would have the option of seeing more Jewish content than was available on other channels. It was considered an entertainment channel and specifically forbidden to broadcast news of any form.
The channel, true to its mandate, did the unthinkable: it displayed the Israeli flag on its broadcasts. Instead of welcoming the change, Haaretz was upset. On March 30, 2015, Rogel Alpher ran a piece headlined, “Channel 20: An Illegal Outpost on our Television Screens.” The subtitle was “by displaying an Israeli flag every second of every day, the cable station – which is supposed to broadcast Jewish content, not right-wing propaganda – looks more like the state-run channel in some dictatorial Arab regime.”
Worse, though, the channel very much wanted to broadcast news. The CCTSB forbade it. As summarized in a recent article on the INN website by Ofra Lax, the channel managed to get itself fined a total of NIS 400,000 for broadcasting news without permission. TV channels two and 10 were outraged. They rightly perceived that in time, Channel 20 would encroach upon their monopoly. Channel 10, the perennial thief of public funds and violator of written contracts, even went to the Supreme Court demanding that Channel 20 not be allowed to broadcast news.
After a lengthy process the CCTSB finally caved under the pressure. On December 22 it allowed Channel 20 to broadcast a one-hour news program at some point between eight and 11 p.m. Another 30 minutes of news were allotted for the rest of the day. One may rest assured that this permit did not come without political backing from the Prime Minister’s Office. Indeed, as reported on The Times of Israel website, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated the channel adding: “I will continue to work for competition in the media industry in Israel so that you – the citizens of Israel – can choose who to watch and who to hear.”
This is real progress, but slow and limited.
Why does a regulatory agency find it necessary to limit news content? Its job is to assure that the content abides by the ethical code, no more and no less. Of course, we do not expect channels two and 10 to do their job and criticize the CCTSB for its draconian decision. But the least one would have expected is that our public broadcasting stations, especially the IBA which claims that “it’s yours and for you,” meaning the public, would pick up the cause and help the CCTSB open up much more.
But that is not the case. Our public broadcasting stations, in collusion with the commercial ones, will do everything to protect their turf. Democracy, free speech and all other nice slogans are conveniently forgotten.
But, the times, they are a’ changing, slowly but surely.
This past Tuesday, the Knesset took a first step to allow cable TV companies to also own TV news channels. This should allow the HOT TV, owned by Patrick Drahi, who also owns HOT, to broadcast the i24 News channel. To prevent unfair competition with its competitor YES, the cable company will have to allow YES to also broadcast i24 News. This is a double win: Israel will be getting another news station and it will hopefully appear on both cable companies.
The same day the Knesset also passed a law mandating the continued operation of the IBA and delaying implementing the law mandating the new and post-Zionist Israel Broadcasting Corporation. This, too, is a healthy step. Public broadcasting is justified only if it serves Israel, not if it attempts on a daily basis to undermine it and its institutions.
These recent steps, which limit and overrule the regulatory powers which deny us a pluralistic media, should be cheered by anyone who values freedom of speech and opinion.The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imediaw.org.il).