The Knesset on Thursday passed legislation dismantling the Israel Broadcast Authority and replacing it with a new public corporation, with 25 in favor and 18 opposed. An amendment banning the expression of personal opinions on air was added to the legislation overnight Wednesday, just before it passed into law.
The provision was added by MK Yisrael Eichler (United Torah Judaism) during the bill’s second reading, in which MKs vote on whether to incorporate legislators’ reservations about the legislation.
It states that broadcasts should “avoid one-sidedness, prejudice, expressing personal opinions, giving grades and affixing labels, ignoring facts or selectively emphasizing them not according to their newsworthiness.” Eichler said he based the text on the “Nakdi Document,” a part of the IBA ethical code since 1972.
The provision was briefly discussed in the Special Knesset Committee for Discussion on the Public Broadcast bill, led by MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud), and Science and Technology Minister Ophir Akunis (Likud), who was tasked with reforming the IBA, expressed support for it. The committee voted it down, and Eichler brought the amendment to a vote in the plenum on Wednesday night.
“I’m for freedom of expression,” Eichler said, defending the change in an interview with Army Radio, “but no one should be paid with tax money to give one-sided opinions...using a microphone that belongs to the nation.”
According to Eichler, “it is unthinkable that I, as a taxpayer, am paying someone who incites against my beliefs and views.”
Akunis defended the provision, saying that it refers to news reporting, which should be objective, and cast aspersions at the reporters who complained about it, saying they must not have been following it.
“Journalists send out rude tweets against politicians and don’t show any respect,” he lamented on Army Radio. “I respect them, they should respect me.”
Akunis pointed out that when the Israel Broadcast Corporation is formed, it will be able to write its own ethical code instead of Eichler’s provision.
“The critics think they’re so smart... a smart person would read the bill,” the minister said.
The change sparked outrage among journalists, who expressed concern that it could silence IBA broadcasters who do not toe the government’s line.
Channel 1 anchor Geula Even-Sa’ar took to Twitter to quote from 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill: "The time, it is to be hoped, is gone by, when any defense would be necessary of the ‘liberty of the press’ as one of the securities against corrupt or tyrannical government.
No argument, we may suppose, can now be needed, against permitting a legislature or an executive, not identified in interest with the people, to prescribe opinions to them, and determine what doctrines or what arguments they shall be allowed to hear."
Israel Radio midday program host Esty Perez tweeted: “A democratic state that prohibits by law journalists in public broadcasting to express their opinions is showing weakness and panic that is characteristic of a weak dictatorship. Put me in handcuffs; I expressed an opinion.”
Israel Radio diplomatic analyst Chico Menashe called the article “shameful” and wrote that he hopes the prime minister, who is also communications minister, will make sure it is changed.
Channel 1 foreign news editor Oren Nahari tweeted: “If I take the article to its ridiculous extreme, my colleagues and I cannot express opinions and comment on ISIS, the refugee crisis, arguments between [US presidential candidates Donald] Trump and [Hillary] Clinton. There will be excellent public broadcasts.”
Yona Wiesnthal, who recently resigned as director-general and editor-in-chief of the IBA, wrote on Twitter: “If I could quit a second time, I would do it after the addition that was put in last night.”
MK Yinon Magal (Bayit Yehudi), a former Channel 1 news anchor, wrote, however: “Food for thought: All the protesters against the unnecessary reservation about ethics and freedom of expressing opinions are on the Left.”
The Union of Journalists in Israel called the article an “addition that was snuck in the middle of the night and in the dark,” one which is “bizarre and harms democracy... and constitutes inappropriate involvement by legislators.”
The way the article was added was superficial and did not allow a public discussion, the union added, and shames Israeli democracy.
Israel Democracy Institute media analyst Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler quipped that Eichler’s addition was “retro,” and brought to mind flashbacks to the 1970s.
Shwartz Altshuler said media research shows that laws requiring journalists to be objective are ineffective.
“The Nakdi Document reflects old-fashioned media norms and many of its rules are not relevant to an age in which transparency is the new objectivity,” she said.
Despite Eichler’s amendment, Akunis said the Israel Broadcast Corporation, that will begin broadcasting on March 31, 2016, as a result of the new law, “will express in a balanced and pluralistic way the variety of opinions, stances and cultures in Israeli society.”
Akunis focused on other elements of the legislation, specifically the cancellation of the television licensing fee, which applies retroactively from January 1, 2015, and having public broadcast funded via the state budget, instead.
“This is a tremendous consumer achievement,” he exclaimed. “Israel needs strong, independent and efficient public broadcasting.”
The law reflected an agreement Akunis and Histadrut labor federation chairman Avi Nissenkorn came to earlier in the week, that the clause pertaining to dismissals and pay cuts of IBA employees would be removed from the bill. Akunis, Nissenkorn and Communications Ministry director-general Shlomo Filber will negotiate the conditions governing the severing of employment.
Nissenkorn would like to see as many IBA staffers as possible moved to the new corporation, but because the bill specifies the ratio of employees to be taken on by the new public broadcasting service, it will be very difficult for him to push for more transfers.
Meanwhile, veteran employees are leaving of their own volition, and almost every day, broadcasters are saying goodbye to departing colleagues on air and in the process are presenting thumbnail histories of their IBA careers.
State Comptroller Joseph Shapira has announced that he’s keeping his eye on developments both in terms of the dismantling of the IBA and the setting up of its successor, in response to the many complaints that he has received about the manner in which the dissolution of the IBA has been conducted.
Also in danger of being voted out of existence is Army Radio, which will mark its 65th anniversary on September 24.
Army Radio was the brainchild of Yigael Yadin, Israel’s second chief of staff, who persuaded prime minister and defense minister David Ben-Gurion to go along with the idea.
Over the years, there have been several attempts to pull the plug on Army Radio, which has proved to be an excellent training ground for many of Israel’s broadcasters, who have gone on to enviable careers in other media.
At a protest meeting against the closure of the IBA held at Beit Sokolow in Tel Aviv last week, the headquarters of the National Union of Journalists, Army Radio’s Rino Tzror declared that the station must stand in solidarity with the IBA “because we’re next in line.”
MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) proposed a bill to cancel the article prohibiting journalists from expressing their opinions in public broadcasts.
Livni called for a full separation between the new broadcast corporation and politicians, saying that as it stands now, the law is a takeover of the media to silence it.
At the same time, she said the press must “continue following the rules of ethics, balance and fairness, but expressing an opinion should not be prohibited."