Who needs gov't censorship?

Public institutions ban 'controversial' ads from both Left and Right.

rejected ad 224.63 (photo credit: Courtesy)
rejected ad 224.63
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The political tensions and polarization over diverse issues such as the peace process, relations between Israeli Jews and Arabs, and a host of other contentious subjects has been leading lately to a voluntary self-censorship on the part of public institutions that influence the molding of public opinion. The latest two examples of this phenomenon took place in the past month and affect both the Right and the Left wings of the ideological divide. In the weeks leading up to the Annapolis conference, an organization known as SOS - Israel approached the Egged bus cooperative to advertise 1,000 posters carrying the slogan, "Olmert Ran Away from the Police to Annapolis." The organization, also known as The World Headquarters for Saving the Nation and the Land, was established a year before the disengagement from Gaza with the intention of preventing the dismantling of the Jewish settlements and the yielding of Israeli control over the area. Now, says one of its leaders, Rabbi Shalom Dovber Wolpo, the movement is determined to prevent another disengagement, this time from the West Bank. Hence the posters. Meanwhile, late last week, the Israel Broadcasting Authority backed out of an agreement to broadcast an advertisement calling for state recognition of the 36 unrecognized Beduin villages in the Negev. According to attorney Ilan Paz-Fuchs, a member of the executive of the human rights organization Bimkom, the advertisements were part of a broader campaign to fight for recognition of the villages, which have been de facto in existence, but without any building, educational, electricity, sewage and many other rights, for the past 60 years. Paz-Fuchs said Bimkom had decided to extend the campaign because it had received encouraging responses during the first two weeks. In the case of Egged, the anti-Annapolis campaign was rejected out of hand. Egged spokesman Ron Ratner issued a brief statement explaining the company's position. "The wording of the poster is controversial and unworthy of being published on Egged buses, which are obliged to carry all layers of the population in all parts of the country," Ratner wrote. "This is not the first time Egged has refused to publish political posters that do not express the opinion of the majority of the nation and are also of a poor standard. In our opinion, Egged buses are not a place for the caprices of one small group or another in the population." The IBA response was equally brief, though more polite in tone. "The IBA is acting on this matter in accordance with IBA rules regarding advertisements and announcements on radio," it said. "According to these rules and a High Court ruling handed down on November 25, 2004, it is prohibited to publish ads on Israel Radio that contain political or ideological messages and content that are in public dispute unless they are solely informative. In the advertisement under discussion, we found statements that contain an element of persuasion for recognition regarding a subject that is under political and social dispute, as can be seen by the large number of complaints the IBA received on the matter. Therefore, the IBA decided to stop broadcasting the ad." Neither of the would-be advertisers was pleased with these decisions or the reasoning behind them. Attorney Aviad Visoli, who represents SOS - Israel, said he had already appealed to the Transportation Ministry, which signs Egged's carrier contract each year, asking it to order the bus company to include a clear statement regarding its criteria for accepting or rejecting ads as a condition for renewing its contract. He also complained to the supervisor of monopolies, since Egged allegedly has a monopoly on bus service throughout most of the country. "Egged may think it's a private company, but it is not and does not have the right to decide for itself which posters it will display and which it will not," Visoli told The Jerusalem Post this week. Paz-Fuchs, meanwhile, challenged the IBA's position that the unrecognized villages were at the center of a public controversy that made it impossible for Israel Radio to broadcast the ad. "The decision is a grave and disproportionate blow to freedom of speech," he told the Post. "Their position is absurd. How do they know the issue is in the center of a public dispute? Just because some people complained. It looks like all you have to do to get an ad you don't like off the air is to organize a few people to send in complaints." He also accused the radio of hypocrisy, because even as it barred the ad on the unrecognized villages, it was broadcasting an ad calling on Israelis to visit Jerusalem with the slogan "Jerusalem above all else" - part of a campaign to fight the government's announced intention of giving the Palestinians parts of the city. "If Arabs wanted to broadcast such an ad for opposite reasons, would the radio allow them to?" asked Paz-Fuchs. He also wanted to know whether a public service announcement by the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry praising the Wisconsin Plan ought to be barred, since the plan was also controversial. In the long run, both SOS - Israel and Bimkom believe that their causes are justified and the ads should therefore be run. Paz-Fuchs said the ad supporting the unrecognized villages "demands granting the Beduin citizens of Israel equal treatment. All we are saying is that recognition of the villages is the same as recognition of all Israeli citizens. What is controversial about that?" Visoli, however, saw a difference between the refusal of Egged to display his poster, and the IBA's cancellation of the Beduin ad. "First of all, the Beduin are law-breakers," he said. "They violate the Building and Planning Law. That's a substantial difference from my case. Secondly, the IBA has clear rules regarding political advertisements. Their criteria are very clear. It is a government authority and therefore prohibited from carrying political ads."