Media Comment: Elections are over, what now?

Members of Knesset, the new and the old, are entrusted with a civic responsibility to seek the best for Israel’s citizens and residents.

Army Radio reporter conducts interview 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Army Radio reporter conducts interview 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The day before yesterday, with the close of the election polling stations, the 120 members of the 19th Knesset were elected. The final distribution is yet to come as we are still waiting for the computation of the remainders. Nevertheless, there are pressing media issues which should be dealt with by our politicians. They include the extent of media regulation by law, secondary legislation, broadcasting ownership, judicial intervention, and ethics vs. obligatory behavior, Internet media and more.
One remarkable media aspect of the election campaign itself was the fragility of free expression in this country. The chairman of the Central Elections Committee, Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, invalidated the content of election TV commercials at whim. The Supreme Court overruled him, but the result nevertheless was some parties, on the Left and the Right, losing precious opportunities to get their message to the public.
ISRAELI LAW limits the airing of election ads to specified broadcast outlets. There is no free market for election advertisement. As a result, at the height of robust political discourse, one person was able to override the rules of debate.
Ironically, the main reason for the court’s reversal was the existence of a parallel social media reality. There is no reason to be too restrictive and, as Supreme Court President Asher D. Grunis wrote, “It may be time to reevaluate the law in light of the changing unforeseen realities.” By “realities” Grunis meant the Internet and the foreign media.
There is no question that in the best of all worlds, parliament would not have to deal with media issues, rather, the media would regulate itself. However, as the British Leveson Inquiry has indicated, voluntary selfimposed press regulation doesn’t work.
Infractions and violations of the law and professional ethical guidelines are too often practiced by the same media bodies which should be part of voluntary regulation agreements.
Even when our media sets up a voluntary institution, the Israel Press Council, it is insufficient. Time and again the press council has shown itself to be unequal to the task of correcting wrongs in real time. It does not have the power, the means or perhaps the will to do so.
TO BE honest, creating a truly independent watchdog and empowering it to oversee recalcitrant press conduct would, as it has in the past, raise a storm. We doubt that there are enough politicians who could take the heat and still pass the needed legislation.
This is not an Israeli malaise; British Premier David Cameron has also backed down.
However, the simple fact remains that too often the press has abused its privileges to create artificial and damaging agendas. Our society has to decide whether it is willing to allow the press to rule, without any checks, balances or accountability.
Consider perhaps the most extreme example.
The IDF’s Army Radio station, Galatz, is not regulated. The funding for the station comes out of our taxes but we the public have no say regarding how the station conducts itself. Worse, the previous Knesset has allowed the station to advance its commercial interests by increasing its allowed advertising air time, but did not use the same opportunity to even impose a public complaints officer, as is the norm for the IBA and the Second Radio and Television Authority.
The budget of Galatz seems to be a state secret. The station refuses to divulge the salaries paid to the station’s “stars,” who are civilians. A truly courageous parliament would address the stickiest issue: Does Israel still need an army radio station at all? Should soldiers be conscripted to serve in a unit whose income is substantially based on commercial advertising and whose content is overwhelmingly political? GALATZ IS not the only glaring problem.
The Educational Television Network is funded by the Education Ministry – that is, by public money. But we the taxpayers have no oversight regarding how the station is run. As in the case of Galatz, the salaries paid are a state secret. The content is decided upon by a small group of people who have been working at the station for years. There is no public complaints commissioner.
Here too, the central question is why should taxpayers continue to fund the station? Technology has made it obsolete.
If our educators need educational programming, it can and should be supplied through the free market directly into the classrooms, rather than via a wasteful and unnecessary bureaucracy.
THE SERIOUS challenges facing our parliamentarians are not limited to the publicly funded media. The 18th Knesset passed a law which presumably allows anyone who so desires to open a TV channel. But apart from changing the name from “concession” to “license,” the Knesset left in place draconian laws which make it virtually impossible for any TV channel to thrive economically.
Instead of imposing strict but minimalist rules which assure the ethical and lawful conduct of the media, the Knesset has left in place rules which force the stations to provide news, to buy a percentage of their wares from the local media market and more.
Reality has shown that these draconian laws don’t work. The concessionaires have disregarded them shamelessly and the Second Radio and Television Authority has been powerless to do anything about it. The only real result of these laws is that Israel is limited to two commercial TV stations, whose content is difficult to distinguish.
Freeing up the market would provide for more pluralism and cannot lead to programming inferior to what is on offer today.
The challenge facing the 19th Knesset is to assure a true “open skies” media market.
Technology has created a wonderfully fresh and competitive media market, through the Internet and social media sites.
The Knesset has been very slow to react to these developments, and thankfully so. It is the Internet that has seriously limited the freedom of the mainstream press to pursue only its own agenda. The proliferation of cameras given to the public by both left- and right-wing NGOs in Israel is ample evidence of the power the public has to reveal what the mainstream media ignores or hides.
YET, JUST as we want the government to regulate restaurants and assure the proper hygiene of our food, so too we need serious thought to be given to the regulation of the Internet. For example, should the right of response be imposed on news websites? How does the individual protect herself from Internet excesses? Can the private citizen require an Internet site to publish an apology when justified?
How does one relate for example to an Internet site such as Mako, which belongs to the Channel 2 TV Keshet concessionaire? On the one hand it is a full-fledged media content website. On the other it has questionable content. Is this acceptable for our society?
Members of Knesset, the new and the old, are entrusted with a civic responsibility to seek the best for Israel’s citizens and residents.
The instrument is legislation, accompanied by public input. It is our expectation that they will not be cowed by media interests, political, personal or economic, and will deal with these issues.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (