Howls of protest, outrage and disbelief from Jerusalem Post readers around the world have greeted the threat of the imminent closure of the Israel Broadcasting Authority's English-language TV and radio news broadcasts. Ahead of a meeting of the IBA's Management Committee on Monday, at which almost all foreign language news broadcasts are facing the axe, Post readers have written in from Israel, across Europe, the US, South Africa, Australia, Asia and beyond to urge the IBA to reconsider.
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Far from halting the broadcasts, many writers urged, the government should be expanding them as a means of getting Israel's message across.
"Shooting yourselves in the foot," "madness" and "tantamount to national suicide" are some of the more succinct readers' criticisms of the planned move, which is being mooted because of financial pressures at the state broadcaster.
Threats have been issued in years past to close down English news - which broadcasts three local and one global radio broadcasts and a daily TV news show - and a dozen other foreign language news services, only for last-minute reprieves to save the services. But staffing at these services has been relentlessly cut over the past two years - from 25 staffers to seven, for instance, in the English radio department. And insiders fear there may be no reprieve this time, or that further cuts would stretch the foreign language departments past the breaking point.
Hebrew and Arabic news broadcasts are not under threat, but broadcasts in other languages, including Russian, French, Spanish and Amharic, are similarly facing the axe.
Further adding to the insiders' concern is the sense that the IBA's management is too weak to stand up to the pressure to cut costs, and the fact that the IBA does not have a minister in government to look after its interests. Labor's Eitan Cabel, who held that responsibility, resigned following publication of the Winograd Committee's interim report.
Set against this, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is also acting finance minister, has promised that he will look into the matter. In 2000, Olmert, then the minister responsible for the IBA, pledged to ensure that the English news services were maintained. The IBA is also required by law to maintain foreign language broadcasts.
In a September 2000 letter, Olmert told the Post, "I have spoken to the director of the Broadcasting Authority about this issue and have given him a directive that there is no place for a further change in the programming of the English news broadcast. I am aware of the importance of the English news broadcast for the English-speaking population in Israel and its significant listening audience."
Ironically, the insiders said, Israel Radio's various services are profitable, while its TV services are not - yet it is the radio, rather than TV, that is set to bear the brunt of the new cuts.
In comments to the Post, one writer asserted that the IBA's broadcasts were no less valuable than the American jet fighters Israel buys for tens of millions of dollars.
In a similar vein, with added cynicism, another said, of the government: "They caused the army to lose the battle on the 'ground' last year. Why not lose the 'air' this year?"
A writer from Chile said that while "guns are essential to defend Israel," it also has to "win the war of ideas. In this, the English voice of IBA is essential."
"Not only will Israel lose the possibility to defend itself against the slanders that abound in English-speaking and Arab-controlled media," added a reader from Poland, "but it will cut off its friends in Europe, USA and elsewhere in the world from an essential source of unbiased information on the Middle East."
The planned closure "comes only a few months after Al-Jazeera's 24/7 English programming became available for free through its Internet site," noted another Post protester. "Without an English IBA broadcast, pro-Arab images and spin will monopolize the projection of local Mideast news into English-speaking countries. Israel cannot afford any more stupid PR moves like this."
"What is the government of Israel thinking?" asked one correspondent from the US. "I listen to IBA on the Internet every single day. It's the only way I get the real news from Israel. Not only that, the syndicated Middle East English broadcast Mosaic, on Link TV, features news from several Arab countries and broadcasts from Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. If IBA were not on with those broadcasts, only the Arab view would be presented."
A reader in South Africa echoed the theme: "The move to cancel this station would only be seriously detrimental to those that are trying to fight Israel's case abroad," she wrote.
"It would be madness to abandon English broadcasts," wrote one correspondent from the UK, citing a perceived anti-Israel bias of the BBC "influencing a whole UK generation... But then madness seems to be a common malady in today's Israel."
"Instead of shutting down we should be expanding this incredible resource," concluded an Israeli writer. "If there are major problems, repair them. This is our face to the world."
In a letter to the heads of the IBA, meanwhile, Prof. Elihu Richter of the Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health and Community Medicine called the plan to cut the IBA English broadcasts "a stupid exercise in self-destruction at a time when there never has been a greater need for increasing the English language service."
"Imagine what would have happened in WWII had the BBC decided to cut its broadcasts to the world - broadcasting its messages to far and wide about Britain's fight against Nazi Germany - or the US had decided to cut its Radio Free Europe and Voice of America broadcasts to those living under Communist tyranny," Richter asked.
"Broadcasts of Israel's message to the world are part of Israel's fight for existence at a time of unparalleled danger to the country," he stated. "The answer to the massive amount of misinformation and disinformation about Israel is a strengthened Israeli news service and program broadcasting to the world in all languages."
In an editorial last week, the Post noted that "Israel gets too few opportunities to present its perspective overseas. For Israel to thus undercut its own obvious interest boggles the mind."
It went on: "Military contests are only one facet of the challenges Israel faces. Waging a convincing battle for hearts and minds overseas is essential. In this inherently crucial conflict Israel must not lose any outlet for its voice, especially not the IBA's voice in English."
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