An alternate reality

In Israel, the media really do serve as a watchdog of democracy.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a recent weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a recent weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Monday, I met a group of foreign diplomats who had come to Israel to learn about the country and its challenges. We gathered for lunch at the Max Brenner restaurant in Tel Aviv’s Sarona Market and sat just a few tables away from where two Palestinian cousins from the West Bank village of Yatta started their shooting spree in June, murdering four people.
It was a fascinating discussion – about Israel, its history, accomplishments and the nation’s resilience after 68 years of war and terrorism.
At one point, one of the diplomats – from an African country – asked me about freedom of the press in Israel. I was sure he was referring to the opinion piece that appeared over the weekend in The New York Times under the headline: “How Benjamin Netanyahu Is Crushing Israel’s Free Press,” but then he carried on.
“How does a country like Israel with such security threats manage to maintain a free and open press,” the diplomat asked with genuine curiosity. Due to the security threats Israel faces, he argued, it would make sense for the government to crack down on the press to help keep the country safe and in order.
I explained that in Israel we do have a military censor for articles written on security or military affairs. We send them to the censor, I said, they review them and more often-than-not, return them with corrections. As journalists, I said, we might not like the censor, but we have come to terms with its existence.
On the other hand, I explained, we can write whatever we want about the government – against the prime minister or in support of the prime minister.
We can slam the government’s diplomatic positions, expose instances of corruption in city hall and criticize the defense establishment over its poor preparation for the wars to come.
In Israel, the media really do serve as a watchdog of democracy.
Surprisingly, the diplomats were impressed. Many of them came from African and Eastern European countries with national security threats that have pushed their governments to take steps to curb the freedom of the press. One diplomat came from a country whose government suspended certain rights afforded to the media after the outbreak of Ebola in Africa in 2014 as part of an effort to prevent mass public pandemonium.
I tell this story, because like many of the opinion pieces that appear in The New York Times and depict life in Israel, one walks away confused. The aforementioned op-ed, on Netanyahu’s supposed crushing of the media, featured prominently on the paper’s site over the weekend and was written by Ruth Margalit, an Israeli journalist who currently lives in New York.
Margalit takes aim at three frequently heard complaints about the Israeli media landscape: Israel Hayom’s distribution as a free newspaper is outrageous since it is owned by Netanyahu supporter Sheldon Adelson; that as communications minister, Netanyahu is obsessed with controlling the media and even dared to replace the director-general of the ministry after the last election; and finally, that the prime minister has associates who intimidate the media to gain favorable headlines.
These claims are not new and Margalit had whom to base them on. The Freedom House, an NGO that monitors the global press, lowered Israel’s ranking in 2015 from “Free” to “Partly Free.”
Why, you might be wondering? No, not because of restrictions on Palestinian journalists or the continued existence of the military censor. Rather, the downgrade was the result of something far worse – “the growing impact of Israel Hayom, whose owner-subsidized business model endangered the stability of other media outlets, and the unchecked expansion of paid content – some of it government funded – whose nature was not clearly identified to the public.”
So basically, because of sponsored content – a feature in thousands of publications around the world including The Washington Post and The Atlantic – and a daily paper that is given out for free, Israeli press is only “partly free.” Is Israel the only country with a free newspaper? Of course not. It is, however, the only one that was downgraded because of it.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have my criticism of Israel Hayom and its blatant inability and failure to criticize the prime minister. More people need to take what appears in its pages with a grain of salt, but its existence does not threaten Israel’s freedom of press. Israel Hayom has been printed for nearly a decade now and all of the Israeli newspapers which were around back then are still being printed and are still writing stinging rebukes of Netanyahu on a daily basis.
Is there increased competition? Yes.
Do newspapers need to work harder to stem losses? Of course. But this is often the nature of the industry, not some alternate reality as portrayed by Margalit.
The second claim, that Netanyahu replaced the director-general of the Communications Ministry, shows a basic misunderstanding of how the Israeli government works. The appointment of a new director-general is standard practice in all ministries with the appointment of a new minister. Here are just some of the ministries that received new directors-general after the elections last year: Social Affairs and Social Services, Health, Construction and Housing, and Defense. Did anyone assume that then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon was politicizing the IDF or that Yoav Galant is pushing a personal housing agenda? And to Margalit’s last point – that Netanyahu’s associates call media outlets and try to spin the news in his favor – well, this could take some time, but I’ve yet to encounter a single politician who doesn’t do that, let alone a government.
The Times shouldn’t have to look too far. In May, it published the very same thing about Barack Obama in David Samuel’s fantastic profile of Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, who is described as the “master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives.” Basically, Rhodes is a spin doctor for the US government.
So at a time when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues his ruthless crackdown on the media – closing more than 130 outlets since the failed coup last month – Netanyahu is apparently the one crushing free press.
The one point of criticism that resonates some legitimacy was what Margailt wrote regarding the reforms Netanyahu is planning in broadcast journalism.
On the one hand, Netanyahu is planning to open up the broadcast market and allow any channel that is a content provider to also report the news.
This of course threatens Channels 10 and 2, which currently have a monopoly on the news market. In every other sector, Israelis clamor for reforms and the dismantling of monopolies. But not with our news? In this case we should prefer to hear the same monotonous voices every night? The problem is that the reforms leave too much power in the hands of the regulator. But none of this nor the fear of new competition has stopped journalists at these channels from describing the media climate as “Bolshevik” or from regularly criticizing Netanyahu.
On the contrary.
Let me offer another version of reality by a member of the “free press” which is apparently being crushed by Netanyahu: Does Israel’s democracy have problems? Yes. Does the prime minister’s fixation with the media concern me at times? Yes. But does it make me feel like we are not free? No.
Take the recent brouhaha over Netanyahu’s decision to delay the opening of the new public broadcasting authority, known by its Hebrew name Kan.
The new authority was slated to hit the airwaves at the end of the year but then Netanyahu announced last week that it will open in 2018.
What Netanyahu didn’t anticipate though was the uproar this would cause and how his coalition partners – specifically Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Education Minister Naftali Bennett – would react. Both said they wouldn’t approve the delay and Kahlon went as far as to say that he wouldn’t fund the old broadcasting authority that Kan is meant to replace. For a couple of days, the coalition seemed to be on the verge of collapsing.
Netanyahu’s true intentions in delaying the opening of Kan remain unclear, but they seem to be connected to the fact that, for the first time in Israeli history, the country is going to get public broadcasting that has the potential to be like the BBC. Not just in the quality of its content, but also in the sharpness of its bite.
But to say that this undermines Israel’s democracy is a stretch. What Kahlon and Bennett did is exactly what democracy is about – they stood defiantly, refused to participate in a move they viewed to be wrong and got the prime minister to reverse his earlier decision.
Kan will now open in 2017.
That is democracy at work, not being crushed.