If Army Radio continues broadcasting, it must avoid politics - editorial

Yaakov Bardugo was removed from broadcast last week following complaints that he used the platform badly.

 Yaakov Bardugo speaks the conference of the Israeli newspaper "Makor Rishon" at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, December 8, 2019 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Yaakov Bardugo speaks the conference of the Israeli newspaper "Makor Rishon" at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, December 8, 2019
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Periodically, Israel’s Army Radio makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. This is what happened last week when broadcaster Yaakov Bardugo was removed from the anchor spot of the 5 p.m. news show by Army Radio’s interim boss, Galit Altstein. His removal followed repeated complaints that he used the platform to spread misinformation; to degrade politicians, rabbis and others; and to voice on-air wholesale support for former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Indeed, Bardugo never hid his political preferences and opinions, although the same could be said equally of fellow broadcasters on the political Left, including Army Radio veteran morning show host Razi Barka’i, who recently retired, and Rino Tzror, who does not bother to hide his contempt when interviewing figures on the Right.

Although Bardugo was not fired from the Friday morning show he co-hosted with Moshe Shlonsky, he decided to resign in protest – on air.

There was a swift backlash to Bardugo’s being forced out of the station. Netanyahu tweeted that Bardugo’s dismissal was “evidence of the Left’s trampling of democracy and freedom of speech. Army Radio is trying to shut the mouth of every right-wing commentator. The Right cannot be silenced and Bardugo cannot be silenced.”

The heads of the opposition factions jointly decided that in protest to the dismissal, opposition MKs will no longer be interviewed on the army station, and called for its closure.

 Israelis protest outside the Army Radio music station (Galei Tzahal) headquarters in Tel Aviv, on April 19, 2021 (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90) Israelis protest outside the Army Radio music station (Galei Tzahal) headquarters in Tel Aviv, on April 19, 2021 (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana noted that Israel is the only Western nation with a radio station controlled by its military and tweeted, “It is time to privatize Army Radio!”

The idea of closing or privatizing Army Radio has come up regularly over the years. Current Defense Minister Benny Gantz is reportedly in favor of shutting it down. After reports appeared in April saying the IDF and the Defense Ministry were in agreement on closing the station, the Union of Journalists in Israel submitted an urgent appeal to then-attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit to prevent Gantz from doing so.

Last month, shortly before he stepped down, Mandelblit issued a legal opinion ruling that Gantz should not close Army Radio without full-fledged Knesset legislation, including a transparent public debate that such a process makes possible.

Mandelblit said closing Army Radio without a law to allow it would be “legally difficult,” since it would be a major shift in a long-standing policy or norm. 

The Bardugo affair is just the latest reason why Army Radio needs to be shut down. A radio station controlled by the IDF cannot have an anchor who refuses to call ministers by their ministerial title. Bardugo, for example, used to call Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar “Gideon” – no last name and no title.

The issue with him was not one of Right vs Left; it was about how a broadcaster on an army-funded channel should be speaking about the democratic institutions that serve as the foundation of our democracy.

There is a general consensus that his loud-mouth, opinionated style was far from being one that serves as a good example to young listeners. This was not civil discourse.

While there might be a place for a military station broadcasting to the country’s soldiers, it is hard to justify the cash-strapped defense budget being spent on big-name civilian presenters and 24/7 broadcasts. 

Army Radio was established in 1950 and played an important role in forging Israeli culture in the earlier years of the state. Its flagship programs, such as the popular “Kola shel Ima” (“A Mother’s Voice”) on Friday mornings, when parents sent Shabbat greetings to their soldier children, and soldiers spoke on-air to their parents, were staples of Israeli life and served an important role at a time when most families did not even have a telephone, and mobile phones were the realm of science fiction.

Decades ago, when Israel Radio did not have 24-hour broadcasts and there were no other Israeli stations or Internet access able to provide nighttime news bulletins, the rationale for a military national broadcaster that did not go off air was easier to understand and justify.

If Army Radio is to continue broadcasting to serve its original purpose and mandate as part of the Israel Defense Forces, it must avoid politics. Army Radio should have no say in political battles.