Media Comment: Channel 10 versus Israel’s democracy

Channel 10 had no respect for the democratic process until now. Should the Knesset then save it today?

Channel 10 protest 370 (photo credit: The Tzipi Livni Party)
Channel 10 protest 370
(photo credit: The Tzipi Livni Party)
Israel’s Media Watch petitioned the High Court for Justice yesterday, requesting it halt all Knesset legislation concerning Channel 10 television.
IMW’s main assertion is that, in accord with the instructions of the attorney general, the government should not undertake any last-minute legislation during an election campaign.
If the court upholds our request, Channel 10 will have to close down. This will not only leave the hundreds of employees of the channel jobless, but also temporarily deprive Israel of an important media outlet, outcomes which have been described as harmful to Israeli democracy.
Channel 10 has become a major point of contention in the election campaign, with opposition parties lambasting the government for allowing this situation to develop. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been accused of carrying out a personal vendetta against Channel 10 due to the defamatory documentaries against him and his family aired on the channel.
Israel’s Media Watch is an organization which has led the call for free skies and pluralism in Israel’s media. In fact, Eli Pollak was a member of the Peled Commission, which in 1997 paved the way not only for the creation of Channel 10, but also for more recent legislation supporting an open skies policy for our media.
Why then is IMW now petitioning the High Court of Justice in an attempt to put a stop to Channel 10? Wouldn’t the right step be to encourage the Knesset to extend Channel 10’s lifetime for another year? As youngsters, we are taught that the end does not justify the means. Increasing media pluralism is an important goal, but we believe Israel’s democracy and the rule of law come first. It is the democratic system which safeguards the freedom of the press. If the democratic system itself is not respected, and if the law is systematically violated, the ultimate result will be the curtailment of freedom of the press.
Quite some time ago, the right-wing Arutz 7 radio station, which for many years operated without a permit, was closed down by the Supreme Court, even though the Knesset legalized it.
The court overruled the legislature. At that time, neither the court nor the left-wing political parties (it was actually Meretz leader Yossi Sarid who spearheaded the case against Arutz 7) thought media pluralism was more important than the law.
The court found that the Knesset’s legal process was flawed, so it annulled the legislation. The heads of the radio channel were found guilty of violating the law and sentenced accordingly.
Let us now consider some of the history of Channel 10. It started broadcasting in January 2002. From the very beginning, its license stipulated that it would broadcast from Jerusalem, with the Knesset’s intent being to strengthen our capital.
But from the outset, the channel’s owners took up office space in Givatayim, and to this day the channel’s base of operations is not in Jerusalem.
DURING THE past year, when the channel’s financial difficulties once again became headline news, the pressure on the owners to move the channel to Jerusalem increased. Their response was to rent a studio in Jerusalem, move the news presenter to this studio but continue to base the news center itself in Givatayim. The ridiculousness of this situation caused Ya’akov Eilon, for many years the anchorman for Channel 10 news, to resign.
The channel’s refusal to honor its administrative and financial commitments is well known. It has been a perennial scofflaw. In July 2009, the Finance and Communications Ministries reached an agreement with the channel to defer payment of its debts until 2012. In December 2011 the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee refused to give the channel an additional extension.
We all know what happens if we do not pay our own private debts to the gas, phone or electricity companies. But when it comes to the media, the law and signed agreements are not important? Insisting commitments be met is considered undemocratic? In fact, the government’s current decision undertake special legislation to prolong Channel 10’s operations and undermine our democratic system is due to nothing less than blackmail. The law prohibits any commercial TV channel from using its broadcasts to further its own agenda. Yet the channel has continuously agitated against the government during the past few weeks. It is no secret Israel will be holding elections in January, or that anyone who dares go against the channel is at the mercy of our media. The resulting pressure on politicians with regard to this issue is unbearable – but also unforgivable.
Only last week, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin publicly announced he would not allow any further legislation before the elections, and rightly so. The present government is, as the attorney general pointed out, only a caretaker government and should not undertake any steps which are significant in the long term. But public blackmail pays: This past Monday, the government decided to pass new and special legislation, and Rivlin will convene the Knesset today in order to provide the goods.
But what about the future of the employees of the channel? Do we really want them to go jobless? Sometimes there is no choice. Let’s be honest, what is worse: having a few hundred employees receive unemployment benefits for a few months or, for example, throwing eight thousand people out of their homes? The 2005 expulsion from Gaza, termed the disengagement plan, was deemed necessary in pursuit of a higher aim: peace. It was justified as being a fulfillment of the rule of law after the Knesset voted for it and the High Court of Justice affirmed the legality of the legislation. Over 8,000 people suffered.
Many youths had their lives altered to the extent of causing them much mental and psychological damage for which the state is still paying in terms of social services budgets. But now, the rule of law should be ignored, just because the result would be a temporary downturn in the media business? Losing a job is heart-wrenching, but unfortunately it is part of life, as are losing money invested in the financial markets and many other mishaps. Society should do the utmost to prevent such misery, but there are limits.
The owners and managers of Channel 10 have cynically used the misfortune of some of their employees in an attempt to avoid paying their commitments to the state. If they are allowed to do so, why shouldn’t Channel 2 do the same? If Channel 10 is given concessions, Channel 2 justifiably will – and does – demand the same. The law should apply equally to all. It should be stated clearly: Channel 10 had no respect for the democratic process until now. Should the Knesset then save it today?
The authors are, respectively, vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (