The future of Israel’s public and free media

The role of the media is to be a watchdog for democracy.

Netanyahu is seen delivering his speech to the U.S. Congress on television screens in an electronics store in a Jerusalem shopping mall March 3, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu is seen delivering his speech to the U.S. Congress on television screens in an electronics store in a Jerusalem shopping mall March 3, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Of all days, public attention around the Israeli public broadcasting service peaked just when 16 senior journalists of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, one of the last free media channels left in Turkey, were arrested.
While there are no reporters and commentators in Israeli prisons due to publishing opposition views, and fortunately opposition members in the Knesset are still allowed to publish their words as well, the difficult reality in Turkey serves as a warning signal.
Democracy seemed firm and safe there, and was even anchored in a constitution, but it quickly became clear just how fragile it was.
Netanyahu’s response to the critical investigative report of acclaimed journalist Ilana Dayan was the latest in a series of alarmed responses from the government that have been aimed at neutralizing the media and turning it from a tool of public service into a tool of government.
Netanyahu’s office’s response was all ad hominem against Dayan and did not even partially address the substance of the report (for example, does the prime minister share classified information with his wife, who does not have the appropriate clearance?). This response rang a shrilling alert in the Israeli public sphere, calling upon all of us to stand up without fear to ward Netanyahu off the media channels and journalists who still stand strong in their defense of Israeli democracy.
Netanyahu’s embarrassing and worrying response is a continuation of the long saga of the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation (IPBC), which he’s working to shut down using his special envoy, coalition chairman MK David Bitan, who doesn’t hesitate to use any possible means, including monitoring the personal Facebook profiles of journalists.
The IPBC was born out of a long process in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and communications minister Gilad Erdan advanced a delegitimization campaign against the old Israel Broadcasting Agency (IBA), which was understood by the public to be a corrupt, useless, ineffective body with unique and unnecessary fees.
Netanyahu and Erdan announced the establishment of a new public broadcasting corporation, using pompous superlatives that made the new initiative seem akin to reinventing Zionism. They spoke of the freedom of press, the defense of democracy and the removal of the hands of politicians from public broadcasting.
To add some populist lubricant, Netanyahu and Erdan announced also that the old fees would be canceled (so that the new body would be funded directly from the state budget).
When the IPBC was discussed in the government, I was the only minister who opposed it. I claimed that the old IBA has wonderful workers, a worthy infrastructure and a democratic spirit, and therefore deserves a chance to conduct the necessary adaptations to the spirit of the time and new technologies.
Regrettably Prime Minister Netanyahu gave his full backing to Erdan’s proposal and managed to get all the other ministers on board, while I remained alone in my belief in the old IBA. It was hard for me, therefore, to hear the prime minister say last week that he will “rehabilitate the IBA.”
The past two years of uncertainty in the IBA, including a transition of many of its leading workers to the IPBC, the retirement of others, the moratorium on investments in infrastructure and content, were another nail in the coffin of the IBA.
In fact, Netanyahu had assembled this coffin even beforehand, using the wellknown neoliberal method of incremental budget cuts. Dry up the resources of the public service, thereby make the quality of its services unattractive to the public and prepare the grounds to privatize or dismantle the service.
And there, suddenly, through legislative stunts from coalition members and new calculations that seek to contradict all those presented by Netanyahu himself in 2014, he storms in forcefully, determined to shut the IPBC and revive the old IBA.
Despite my initial opposition to the establishment of the IPBC, I cannot support its dissolution. The motivation to break it and resurrect the IBA is not the wellbeing of its workers of its workers or of public broadcasting. All the prime minister is seeking is the freedom to do as he pleases.
The role of the media is to be a watchdog for democracy.
All those elected to office, including myself, feel the sharp teeth of the media from time to time. That is precisely what it is there for and we all must defend it in any way possible.
I have never dreamed of hurting the free press and we would be better off with an aggressive and even nasty media than a castrated and cowardly one.
In his efforts to shut down and reopen the IBA and use it as a whip against independent media, Netanyahu had proven that he is not interested in balanced news coverage and not even in right-wing coverage.
For him media needs to sanctify one thing only – and that is Netanyahu himself.
The good news is that thanks to democratic forces in the Knesset and despite the whims and fears of the prime minister, the new IPBC will form. The wonderful journalists that were already recruited come from all across the political spectrum and will represent a variety of views and interpretations of Israel’s richly intricate reality.
Nevertheless, a deeper consensus among the general public is necessary, based on the understanding that free media is one of the pillars of a regime that serves the people, rather than the opposite. A broad consensus from Left to Right on the importance of independent media will safeguard us from the slope down which Turkish democracy is presently slipping.
The author is a member of Knesset (Zionist Union), former defense minister, deputy prime minister and chairman of the Labor Party. At the time the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation was established he served as environmental protection minister.