Media Comment: The media challenge

New governments in Israel, especially if they are not left-wing, do not receive the traditional 100 days of grace.

MK Ophir Akunis  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
MK Ophir Akunis
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It took some time, but Israel finally has a new government.
Its stability is questionable, and there are elements in the media doing all they can to destabilize it, even though one may safely assume that the public would not want its tax money to be used for yet another costly election campaign.
New governments in Israel, especially if they are not left-wing, do not receive the traditional 100 days of grace. Criticism of the prime minister for his keeping the Communications Ministry portfolio to himself is broad and biting. The Zionist Union’s Tzipi Livni, speaking on Galatz radio Tuesday, asserted the elections were a “ploy” by Prime Minister Netanyahu to “take over the dominate the media...which is the watchdog of democracy.” Minister Ofir Akunis was deprived of full responsibility for the ministry, yet he does serve in the capacity of a minister in the Communications Ministry.
Given that the prime minister will be kept busy by his myriad other responsibilities, among them the Foreign Ministry and the efforts involved in holding the coalition together, one may well assume that Minister Akunis will de facto be the communications minister and only in acute cases would he need the advice and consent of the prime minister.
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Minister Akunis also has a record of being an honest politician who has the public interest at heart. Indeed, even though his appointment is only for one year – MK Tzachi Hanegbi is scheduled to get the job a year from now – a year is plenty of time to tackle and solve some of the big issues facing our media today.
Arguably, the most important issue is over-regulation and media pluralism. The Second TV and Radio Authority (SATR) has a track record of doing its best to amass power and never relinquishing it. Somehow, the SATR leaders turned out to be more interested in the good of their bureaucracy than in the public good. There is no other way to explain the SATR’s successful efforts during these past years to block any initiative aimed at opening up our electronic skies. The SATR blocked attempts at increasing the number of radio stations. If anything, the number of independently operating stations in Israel has been reduced, especially in view of the shared programs of many of the regional stations.
The Knesset wanted to bring in deregulation, turning the concession law into a licensing law. Fundamentally, the idea is that opening up a TV station would be similar to opening a new restaurant. All that should be needed is a license. In practice, the SATR simply wasted taxpayer money, assuring that while the title of the law was changed from concessions to licenses, the conditions to be fulfilled by a licensee are equivalent to those of a concessionaire, and the results are evident. We still have to suffer from Channel 10 TV. Channel 2 TV has not changed much and the Israel Broadcasting Authority is in a financial-managerial-procedural crisis. As written in Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun.” The new law provides the SATR with almost unlimited power in demanding license fees, bank guarantees, interfering in programming and more.
The new government should thoroughly revamp this law, making it possible for anyone to open a radio or TV station. The authority of the SATR should be limited to making sure that the licensees have the necessary equipment and that the broadcasts do not violate the law in terms of content. There is no reason in the world why national broadcasting must be limited to the Galatz army radio station and the IBA.
Technology allows for opening dozens of radio stations on the FM channels. Israel for some unfathomable reason does not yet have satellite broadcasting for cars.
With some legislative effort, which incidentally would probably be supported by quite a few members of the Opposition, the new minister can create a true revolution.
No more the monopoly of the few and powerful, true competition is what we need in the media. One may also assume that such steps would significantly lower the cost of advertisement, allowing more small companies to advertise their wares through the electronic media.
The outgoing minister responsible for public broadcasting left the public broadcaster in shambles. The new board, recommended by the appointments committee chaired by former regional court justice Esra Kamma, has not been approved by the present government. The present law states that the TV tax will be abolished, but without a massive influx of cash from the Finance Ministry (that is, from our pockets) the public broadcaster will not be able to continue operations. The change of guard is way behind schedule, new legislation is needed just to keep the broadcaster alive, and essentially, the present situation is close to anarchy. There is no public supervision of the IBA, and the results are evident.
Broadcasters do as they will, violating basic ethical guidelines. The programming we are receiving, especially on radio, has not improved.
We call upon Minister Akunis, if indeed he is given the opportunity to do so, to thoroughly revamp the public broadcasting law, turning the IBA back into what it should be, a public broadcaster which serves the public interest, rather than an unfair competitor to the commercial broadcasters. Israel (or any other country in the free world) does not need a publicly funded commercial entity. Either liquidate the IBA, canceling all the taxes, or make sure that it keeps its hands off the business world and provides the public with the quality public programming we sorely need.
The same holds true for the army radio station. There is no justification that we can think of for continuing to fund it from the public coffer. Our small country does not need two national public broadcasters. The only reasons it continues its operations is that it serves the needs of the media in providing jobs and lucrative salaries and that it advances a left-wing, post-Zionist agenda.
One can be sure that if the army radio station were to become right-wing, our “democrats” would quickly shut it down. In a true democracy, where checks and balances are essential, the military does not have a national media organ of its own.
We have not even started to delve into other issues, such as providing fair competition between Internet and cell phone providers. Even this has far reaching implications for the average Israeli. For example, if the cost of roaming abroad was reasonable, the average Israeli abroad would have no difficulty following the media when not at home. As the cost of roaming decreases and the quality of Internet broadcasting increases (4th generation services), the need to shell out money to outrageously expensive cable and satellite TV stations diminishes.
The bottom line is that the new minister has the opportunity to create a true revolution in our media life.
Instead of populist slogans such as “I have abolished the TV tax,” a well thought-out program can do wonders for us all.
The authors are respectively vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (