Many of our readers may not ever have watched TV Channel 20. It broadcasts only on cable and satellite TV, although selected programs are uploaded to the channel’s Facebook page and appear on the Arutz 7 website. The broadcasting law prevents it from broadcasting on the DTT system, which is the technical platform that enables TV channels 2, 10 and 11 to be viewed freely by all. Channel 20 is one of the “dedicated channels.”
As such, its task is to provide “Jewish heritage content.”
There are four operative dedicated cable TV channels, the other three being a music channel and two “foreign” language networks, which broadcast in Russian and in Arabic respectively. These four channels are supposed to make ends meet by selling ads, but this is a tough market and they are not profitable.
Clearly, to survive, each of them must do the utmost to increase viewership.
Channel 20 started operations in 2014. It recognized that Israel’s three mainstream news channels are dominated by the liberal post-Zionist agenda. It made economic sense to provide viewers with very different content and so, from day one, it decided to broaden the scope of its mandate and provide news programs whose ethos is based on Jewish heritage, that is, Zionism and a healthy respect for Judaism. In its original contract, it was stipulated that it would be able to do so, contingent upon the necessary regulatory changes being made.
These changes were enacted in 2016 and allowed the channel, in principle, to dedicate 25% of its airtime to news-related content. The decision was made by the regulator, the Cable and Satellite TV Authority (CSTVA), chaired by Dr. Yifat Ben-Chai Segev. The news programs were to have started this fall, but the channel was impatient and initiated them immediately.
The channel thus turned into a thorn in the side of the same powerful organizations that have a penchant for reminding us that a staple of democracy is freedom of the press.
It is very difficult to forget that TV Channel 10 was for many years a serial violator of the contracts it signed with the regulator, as well as of the regulations governing TV broadcasting. The Netanyahu government, instead of closing it down, heeded the calls for more channels rather than less.
When necessary it even changed the law to allow the channel to broadcast. It is this same channel, in the spirit of the “Cossack thief,” which submitted a brief to the Supreme Court demanding that the permit allowing Channel 20 to broadcast news be withdrawn.
Its claim is based on the fact that the RGE company, which is the majority owner of Channel 10, signed a contract which assured that there would not be an additional news channel. By changing the regulations, so the claim goes, the CSTVA damaged Channel 10 unfairly and caused the state to violate its commitments to the channel.
Channel 10 is not the only one attempting to close down Channel 20. The Reform and Conservative movements did the same. They claim that the channel has discriminated against them and does not allow their representatives or content to be a part of its broadcasts.
On March 1, 2017, a meeting took place between the two religious streams and the CSTVA with the result that the Authority warned Channel 20 that it would monitor their program for the coming month to determine whether the claims of the Reform and Conservative movements are justified. The Authority then determined that indeed Channel 20 was behaving in a discriminatory fashion and in August decided to fine the channel NIS 100,000.
This was not the first fine that month. The CSTVA gave notice on July 16 that it would also fine the channel for an interview it conducted with the prime minister.
The claim here was that the channel did not yet have the full permit to broadcast news. We should add to this that the mainstream channels 2, 10 and 11 were eating themselves with envy as a result of this scoop of Channel 20. They have for years requested similar interviews from the prime minister but were refused.
Netanyahu felt more comfortable in the studio of Channel 20 – which is not obsessed with bringing down his government.
There is another important chapter to this saga.
TV Channel 2 lost its franchise to carry the Knesset channel broadcasts, which was transferred to Channel 20 after a proper tender process supervised by a public committee. Channel 2 is not used to losing and it was furious. It promptly submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court demanding that the decision be annulled. The court, in its infinite wisdom and defense of pluralism, handed down a decision freezing the franchise given to Channel 20 and to this very day, Channel 2 continues its domination of the Knesset channel.
All of this came to a head this past week. In response to the brief submitted by Channel 10’s majority stakeholder RGE, the court demanded that the CSTVA respond by September 1. We do not know what the CSTVA response was. However, we do know that it decided that unless the Knesset legislates that Channel 20 is allowed to broadcast news, it would collect the four million shekels that the channel deposited as guarantee fees. It also warned that if the channel continues broadcasting news its license would be revoked.
This last threat and decision raised a cry. Again, the left wing in Israel, the staunch defender of democracy, was seemingly succeeding in closing down a media station.
This is not new. In 1999 the Knesset passed a law granting Arutz 7 a license to broadcast. MK Eitan Cabel and others promptly petitioned the Supreme Court which, in March 2002, decreed that freedom of speech notwithstanding, Arutz 7 must be closed down. In the aftermath, in 2003, the Jerusalem Magistrates Court convicted 10 Arutz 7 directors and staff members for broadcasting without a license and sentenced them to fines and community service.
Communications Minister Ayoub Kara was on the defensive last week. In an interview on the Galei Yisrael radio station with anchors Erez Tadmor and Michael Dvorin, Kara stated unequivocally: “I am here in the Communications Ministry to safeguard the freedom of expression and will not allow the closure of [Channel] 20.”
The trouble is that words are just that: words. They must be followed with actions and in this case, new legislation. As this took place when Channel 10 should have been closed down, it can be readily be done. The public wants it, petitions have already been signed by thousands. Israel’s Media Watch posted a short satirical clip, comparing the closure of Channel 20 to Turkey and other “democratic” nations who use various methods to shut down unwanted media channels.
Will the Netanyahu government really defend freedom of speech? Will it open up the media market as Netanyahu has promised so many times, or are we bystanders to the usual performance – words, words and more words? The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imediaw.org.il).