Round table discussion at the Israel Democracy Institute..
(photo credit: JONKLINGER/ WIKIMIEDA COMMONS)
Freedom of speech in Israel scored a significant victory this past week, when Communications Minister Ayoub Kara intervened in a confrontation between the government regulator and Channel 20.
Channel 20 will stay on the air, after a ruckus aroused by those who objected to its alleged violation of its charter by broadcasting news in addition to so-called “Jewish heritage” features and Knesset affairs.
This is Kara’s first significant achievement since taking over as communications minister from Tzachi Hanegbi, who served just three months as acting minister in lieu of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s being his own communications tsar.
Netanyahu was forced to resign the position three months ago amid a High Court petition and an ongoing criminal investigation into alleged collusion with two major newspaper publishers. He had appointed fellow Likud MK Hanegbi, a close confidant, to the post for a three-month trial period that ended in Kara’s favor.
Kara spoke eloquently against the bid to disqualify the channel, asserting that “everyone has freedom of expression, not just the Left. We can’t just leave left-wing channels open and not the Right.” He added soberly that “There are problems with the conditions of the license and they will be dealt with according to law... We’ll make sure all the channels live together in harmony.”
While harmony might not be a realistic goal given the built-in dissonance of Israeli civil society, a little balance in our media noise level is a laudable and achievable objective. Indeed, objectivity turned out to be the true issue: Some were asking how could a known right-wing channel present a balanced view?
Such a question was somehow never asked when the left-leaning Channel 2 was the licensee of the new Knesset Channel for the past decade, until it lost a public tender to its competitor, Channel 20. There was no reason for such a misleading campaign against the channel, whose license states that 75% of its content is supposed to be “heritage” and the remaining 25% is to be devoted to current events, including an hour of prime broadcasting time per day.
Since taking control of the Knesset Channel in June 2014, Channel 20 has provided daily coverage of current news events and commentary from a right-wing stance. It features such right-wing pundits as Erel Segal and Shimon Riklin on its nightly news show, which by apparently pure coincidence was the only channel to interview Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his recent visit to Sochi, Russia. Naturally enough, Channel 20 was stoutly defended by high-profile right-wing politicians, such as President Reuven Rivlin, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
Rivlin wrote on Facebook that “the intention to darken Channel 20... is a shadow on Israeli democracy. Regulatory considerations are important and must be followed, but the varied, democratic discourse is even more important, as is exposure to a spectrum of opinions and views.”
Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan noted that both Channels 2 and 10 have violated their licenses many times without being threatened with a shutdown. “There’s no logic and certainly no justice in sanctions against Channel 20, which airs varied and appropriate current events broadcasts, when the government is promoting competition in the broadcast market,” the minister tweeted.
The decision to uphold Channel 20’s license is a statement of government support for pluralism. It at least recognizes the reality that, since the other major TV channels have a left-wing to liberal right-wing orientation, it is only fair to the public, large segments of which belong to the non-liberal wing of the Right, that there should be a channel that speaks for them.
Recently Channel 20 was granted permission to establish a news corporation, just like the one that Channel 2 used during its incumbency. In other words, Channel 20 has won a significant moral victory for the freedom of speech, now to be exercised on behalf of its right-wing viewers.
This is also a significant moral victory for the entire country, at a time when its erstwhile communications minister is facing an onslaught of police investigations.
“One can point to a connection between a strong public broadcasting network and a healthy democratic society,” said Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, from the Israel Democracy Institute.
Democracy’s watchdog, a free media, has been given a stronger bark.