One of the mantras often repeated by our democracy gurus is the need for pluralism. In a democratic society which upholds freedom of speech, one should create platforms which bring to the forefront the broad spectrum of opinions, cultural backgrounds and ethnic origins that exist in it. Indeed, this is a cornerstone of the laws which created our public broadcasting authorities. The distance between theory and practice is unfortunately very large, as we shall see when we consider the saga of TV Channel 20.
A different mantra, pushed by our capitalist society, is the need for competition and the reduction of government involvement in the operations of private companies.
The Netanyahu governments have been oft-criticized by our socialists for their privatization policies. But when it comes to the media, one may conclude, especially during the past six years, that the opposite is the rule. If anything, the Netanyahu governments were more interested in concentrating media power within a government umbrella through its agencies, than in encouraging a free and competitive electronic broadcasting market with minimal government involvement.
And, as we shall illustrate, the saga of TV Channel 20 proves the point.
Toward the end of the previous century, the Israeli government rightly concluded that the number of players in the TV market was too small. To overcome legal obstacles and contractual obligations, a rather strange formula was created.
Israel would have five “dedicated” TV channels: a Russian- language channel, Israeli music, Arabic, news and Jewish heritage. The Jewish heritage channel has had a tumultuous history. Eventually, Channel 20 began broadcasts on June 30, 2014. It is a commercial channel, garnering income from advertisements. It may be viewed on cable TV as part of the free package. It can also be watched via satellite as well as on the Ynet website and the cellular phone system.
Its mandate is to provide entertainment and cultural programming related to Jewish heritage, stressing a Zionist and pro-Israeli viewpoint. Its programming is family-oriented. A left-of-center media critic, Lior Averbukh of Globes, describes the channel’s programming as “right-wing religious.”
The owners of the channel are Isaac Mirilashvili and Avi Bar. Mirilashvili is an Israeli billionaire of Georgian descent.
He is considered to be the Russian equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg, having created the Russian- language social network Vknotakte.ru, which boasts 150 million users. Bar was formerly the executive director of the Sports Channel. The chairman of the board is Mordechai Shaklar, who has a rich history in Israel’s broadcasting industry.
He served as the chairman of the board and then as the executive director of the Second Authority for TV and Radio (SATR). He then became the executive director of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
Shaklar identifies with the national religious camp and lives in Ofra.
So much for background.
Shaklar and the channel have a big appetite. They want to broadcast news and current events programs, knowing well that this would increase their viewership and thus their income. This has upset our democracy gurus. The headline on May 21, 2015, Haaretz story on the channel was: “This is how channel 20 changed from a Jewish Heritage channel to the Israeli Fox News.” The subtitle claimed that Channel 20’s mandate was to broadcast programs on Jewish heritage and tradition, “but under the nose of the regulator the channel turned into a current events channel with a clear right-wing conservative point of view.”
As expected, Haaretz hiccuped and the rest of Israel stands at attention. In June 2015, the SATR fined Channel 20 NIS 100,000 for broadcasting an election rally. On August that same year, the channel was fined another NIS 151,000 for presenting news headlines.
Is the news to be a government- controlled commodity? The chair of SATR is Eva Medziboz. She was appointed by Likud Minister Gilad Erdan when he served in the previous Netanyahu government as communications minister. Her board continues to behave in a rather nasty fashion toward Channel 20. The channel has presented a formal request to the SATR to change the conditions of its license. In a country where law and order is respected, this would of course be unthinkable, but in Israel, where Channel 10 TV had for years requested and then eventually was authorized to change its contractual obligations, such a request should be considered the norm.
What did the channel ask for? As reported by the Globes’ Averbukh, the request was to reduce the Jewish heritage programming to 75 percent.
It is here that all those who spoke about pluralism and the need to have more than two TV channels showed their true colors. TV channels 2 and 10, the music channel 24 and the editors union are all against the request. Channel 10 claims that this would give Channel 20 an unfair competitive edge! The Keshet concessionaire of TV Channel 2 claims the same.
They went so far as to note that the license of Channel 20 was not to provide the right-wing religious segment of the Israeli population with its own TV station.
Of course, TV Channel 2 news also joined the fray, claiming that the SATR does not have the legal right to allow Channel 20 to broadcast news. Globes adds that Channel 2 noted that “naturally we support fair competition in TV news broadcasting.”
Channel 20 is also vying to obtaining the license to run the Knesset TV channel.
This would of course allow it to enter the hard and soft TV news market. However, to date, nothing has happened. We do not expect the SATR to give any concessions to Channel 20.
After all, its job is to defend the concessionaires who pay the salaries of the SATR. These are Channels 2 and 10. Channel 20 is part of the cable network and does not have to pay royalties into the coffers of the SATR. So why should the SATR care? It makes more pragmatic sense to kowtow to the concessionaires.
The sad part of all this story is not the expected bureaucratic attitude of the SATR, but that those who trumpet democracy in Israel are for some strange reason rather quiet. The Israel Democracy Institute is silent.
The Seventh Eye left-wing media review website does not defend Channel 20 either.
Communications Minister Netanyahu has also been rather quiet.
Could it be that pluralism is a value honored only on paper but not in practice? That “pluralism” is defined as different shades of left-wing liberal content, with the Right to be shunned and allowed extremely limited access to the public broadcasting arena? We are heartened by a report that senior officials in the Communications Ministry are reviewing the decision to permit only left-wing satire on Channel One television, the subject of our article last week.
Will there be progress on Channel 20’s status soon? We don’t know but in the meanwhile, next time you hear someone complaining about pluralism, remind them of the saga of Channel 20.
The authors are vice chairman and chairman respectively of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imediaw.