The lack of democratic values in Israeli media

The private citizen must reign supreme and their right to vote freely must be respected. The media’s central contribution is to provide the voter with information.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the media after the vote that dissolved the Knesset in May and sent Israel to a second election.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the media after the vote that dissolved the Knesset in May and sent Israel to a second election.
In less than a week, we’ll know if we go to elections for yet a fourth time in just over a year. Free elections are the heart of the democratic system, but there’s more. A precondition. The campaigns preceding the elections must be free of state pressure, indeed, of any external bias. The private citizen must reign supreme and their right to vote freely must be respected. The media’s central contribution is to provide the voter with information which should help in making the decision for whom to vote.
Israel’s electronic media became a central element in the campaigns for Knesset representation starting in 1997, when a face-to-face debate between the leaders of the two main parties was broadcasted. Not only did television bring the viewers scenes from party rallies or short interviews but now, it was as if Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres were right in our living rooms and talking very much directly to us. Netanyahu’s victory over Peres in 1996 is attributed by many to his forceful appearance in a debate moderated by Dan Margalit.
Yet, in 1999, when then-Labor candidate Ehud Barak refused to debate Prime Minister Netanyahu, the latter did agree to a debate – moderated by Nissim Mishal – with the Center Party’s leader, Yitzhak Mordechai. Netanyahu failed miserably. He projected an unsure candidate, faltering in his command of the material. His successor Likud leader, Ariel Sharon, learned the lesson and refused to debate Barak in the elections of 2001.
Since then, Israel’s media has not succeeded in reinstating the debate. All candidates refused, especially Netanyahu, during this past decade. And yet, a fortnight ago, he challenged Blue and White Benny Gantz to such a debate. In an interview with Mishal on Radio 103 FM, Ben Caspit asked Mishal if Gantz should accept the offer and Mishal replied, “No. Bibi is unbeatable when he feels he’s behind. He’s careless when he feels confident.” Of course, given the polls of the past few days, many showing that the Likud has overcome its second-place showing, perhaps Netanyahu will seek an exit from his offer.
Netanyahu’s challenge was not an honest one. A candidate who refused consistently to any debate with his rivals for the past 20 years, a prime minister who refused consistently to be interviewed live by the media, except for special occasions and “friendly” venues, does not deserve to have the rules changed for him right before election day. Yet, the main loser of this episode is the Israeli voter, who for years has been belittled by the political leadership who did not find it necessary to really appear before the voter.
The vacuum created is filled by the media, which can substitute all too often for a weak politician, making him appear stronger, just as it can bring low a good politician who has an uneven media presence. Can we forget president Richard Nixon debating in 1960 and his five o’clock shadow, making him appear sinister?
Last week, during the Nevada primary campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders met with some media producers just prior to the Las Vegas debate. According to a published report, he singled out one top producer, aggressively stuck a finger in his face and began yelling:  “Your coverage of my campaign is not fair... Your questions tonight are not going to be fair to me... your network has not been playing a fair role in this campaign. I am upset. Is anything going to change?... I hope you will do better.”
Debates are a tricky issue, but it is up to the candidates to present themselves and not dodge or come up with excuses. It is permissible to criticize a journalist, we do this all the time, but this should not substitute for a substantive debate and a need to answer tough questions.
The media’s role in this last election campaign is not only exemplified by its inability to bring about debates. There is something more problematic. The KAN conglomerate was formed through the efforts of then-Likud communications minister Gilad Erdan. The idea was to increase pluralism in the news and cultural programs of the public broadcaster. For a while it looked like Erdan’s goals were partially succeeding, especially in the news programs where, after almost 70 years, conservative elements were brought in, giving them the microphone and the ability to present and provide news from a very different angle.
Yet, the past few weeks, prior to the March 2 election day one senses a frightening change.
You might have noticed that the Kalman and Segel late-afternoon television news diary program broadcast on KAN’s Channel 11 has had its regular hosts absent for more than a week.
On February 12, Segel uploaded a video in which he was seen strumming his guitar along with Shimon Riklin of Channel 20 and Yinon Magal, a broadcaster for Radio 103 FM. They were singing a song for Shabbat, as they do every week for the past few months. A guest enters the frame and joins in. It was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The next day, Segel was informed that he was suspended from the program. In solidarity, although he expressed his opposition to the clip, Kalman Liebskind announced that until Segel returns, he would not be appearing.
In a column he published in Maariv, Liebskind pointed out that not only was there no overt electioneering in the video but that the very reason he and Segel appear on KAN is because of their presumed right-wing views. The network consciously sought them out – not only because they are good for ratings professionally but the idea was that KAN should achieve diversity and plurality of political outlooks.
Why was Segel censored? We are well aware of the left-wing views of Keren Neubach, Arieh Golan and a slew of others at KAN. We’ve been informed that former Labor party head Shelly Yachimovich is set to be reinstated as a host of a radio show on Reshet Bet. What is worse, strumming a guitar with the prime minister or openly using the public airwaves to promote a political agenda?
Yaakov Ahimeir is another part of the story, being retired so close to Election Day. They couldn’t hold off until after the elections? Other KAN right-wing journalists, such as Emily Amrusi, have had their on-air time reduced. Yet, apart from the right-of-center press such as Israel Hayom and Makor Rishon, the media did not comment on this. The Israel Democracy Institute, too, was mum. If the government is not permitted to make decisions prior to Election Day, why is a publicly-funded body not restricted? Can it be that the powers-that-be at KAN smell a change of power and this is what interests them?
The media could have excelled but it did not. Its contribution is minor as compared to the citizenship through Twitter and Facebook. We can only exhort all of you – go and vote, exercise your democratic right and vote for the party you feel is closest to your mind and heart. Ignore the media!
The writers are members of Israel’s Media Watch. (