FILE PHOTO: Employees work in the offices of Kan, the new Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, in Tel Aviv, Israel November 3, 2016..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Today, the new Israel Broadcasting Corporation – known as Kan – hits the airways. We wish the channel, its executives and reporters the best of luck, and to use the opportunity to add a few words of advice and caution.
Public broadcasting has long been a part of the country’s media landscape. The Israel Broadcasting Authority, which closed last week, had been serving the public since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Its flagship TV news program, Mabat, broadcasted its last show on Tuesday after 49 years, after being told it would be the last just two hours before going on air.
As Kan starts broadcasting, its journalists are in jeopardy of facing unprecedented government pressure. One of the reasons it took so long to finally begin operations was a complete misunderstanding by some ministers of what public broadcasting is meant to be. Some, like Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, still don’t understand how the government can on the one hand fund a news channel, but on the other hand, not have control over what it reports.
“It doesn’t make sense that we will establish a corporation that we won’t control,” the Likud Party minister said a few months ago.
In addition, the amount of time, energy and resources that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally invested in trying to first torpedo and then curb the freedom of Kan is a sign of what is likely still in store for the channel. The discussions as recently as last week in the Knesset regarding the channel, during which MKs and government officials made clear which journalists they wanted it to employ and which they didn’t, is another.
Likud MK Miki Zohar said just a few weeks ago that the IBC had been conceived in sin. “Everyone makes mistakes, and we acknowledge that we erred,” Zohar, who is close to Netanyahu, said.
As the IBC goes on air, it is worth recalling the results of a 2016 Media Intelligence Service study which found that countries with well-funded public broadcasting tend to have greater freedom of the press.
More money in public broadcasting, the report found, correlates with greater freedom. Corruption, the report said, is more then under better control. The report also found that in countries where there is more public broadcasting on television, right-wing extremism tends to be less popular and social cohesion tends to be greater.
“While one cannot argue for a direct correlation between public broadcasting and good governance, one can point to a connection between a strong public broadcasting network and a healthy democratic society,” explained Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, from the Israel Democracy Institute.
Kan has a chance of encouraging those same qualities in Israel, but to do so it will need to remain independent and fight off government intervention. That will not be easy.
One of the main problems is that the executives at Kan will be at the mercy of the government. In 2015, the government canceled the annual license fee every TV owner had to pay to fund the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Until then, part of IBA’s budget came directly from the taxpayer, in this case the TV viewer. From now on, the budget belongs solely to the government, which can easily change it at its discretion. If it is happy with the IBC, it will keep the budget as is; if it is unhappy with the coverage it gets, it has the ability to change it. That is a constant sword hanging over the IBC.
While this is an unhealthy arrangement, there are signs that Kan will know how to withstand this pressure if and when it comes. It has hired a diverse cadre of talented journalists who have long and impressive careers behind them of not folding to government pressure.
The IBC’s ultimate success though will come from the government understanding that Kan is off limits. While the channel might be funded by the government, it belongs to Israel’s citizens who, after years of watching the IBA’s content decline in excellence and quantity, will finally have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of high-quality public broadcasting.