Financial difficulties compelled the channels to request a deferral of their outstanding debts to the government this month, and the resulting Knesset decisions have elicited considerable controversy. While the Knesset passed a law this past Tuesday (Dec. 27) authorizing the delay of state-operated Channel 1’s NIS 150 million ($39.4 million) debt reimbursement, the governmental body’s Economic Affairs Committee voted to reject a similar request from Channel 10.
Channel 10, which is privately owned, will be forced to terminate their programming at the end of January due to their inability to defray a NIS 45 million debt (roughly $11 million). While the decision will end numerous jobs and remove a major media outlet, political commentators have focused on the broader implications of the Knesset’s latest decisions.
“We are cutting off all the branches of broadcasts in the country,” said Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin. Others more forcefully expressed their dismay at the prospect of a mitigated media. “For the first time, I fear the end of critical and investigative news as we have known it in Israel,” explained Amnon Danker, a veteran journalist. “If Channel 10 closes, Channel 2 will grow tamer. Since childhood I have felt that freedom of the press was marching forward [in Israel]. Now I feel it is retreating.”
Channel 2 is the only other independently owned and operated news station in Israel, and state control is beginning to unnerve Israelis who feel that a central democratic feature—free expression—is gradually dissipating in the public sphere. Fears of rightist domination were best summed in the words of Kadima member and President Shimon Peres, who asserted that the current media issue embodies no less than “a struggle for Israel’s democratic character.”
Opponents of the current parliamentary decisions have cited the stifling of critical expression in the news. With strong influence over Channel 1, State Radio, and Israel Hayom, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has come to wield an inordinate amount of power in the broadcasting realm.
Channel 10 purportedly offers more comprehensive and transparent coverage of Israeli events, and it is for this reason that citizens have viewed the channel’s demise as reflective of the general orientation of the political climate. With Channel 10 gone and only one channel remaining, those that champion healthy criticism of governmental operations will be at a loss. In fact, according to multiple news sources, it is partially due to its well-known criticism of the Prime Minister that Channel 10 is now on the precipice of disaster. “The fight over Channel 10 is partly a matter of revenge — Netanyahu wants to make them pay for what they did to him,” stated Nachman Shai, a Kadima member and former executive at the news station.
In the spring of 2009, Channel 10 broadcasted exclusive reports regarding Netanyahu’s travels as an elected official. He purportedly traveled to popular tourist cities including New York and Paris, and word of the extravagant nature of his trips did little to enhance popular perception of the former finance minister. The broadcast also noted that Netanyahu had funded his vacations with organizational money, and the premier responded by initiating a libel lawsuit against the news station.
Raviv Drucker, the chief investigative reporter for Channel 10, has been specifically targeted by the Prime Minister, according to national media. Insider reports have intimated that if Drucker were dismissed from his position, Channel 10 would experience an easier time soliciting an extension. In light of the current troubles confronting the news station, Drucker remarked that “if [Channel 10] die[s], the message will be clear that if you have the guts to open a critical news company, you will go bankrupt.”
What is ironic about the current situation is that the Prime Minister has acted benevolently towards the news station in the past. He intervened twice to save the channel, claiming that the exchange of ideas along the political, cultural, and economic spectrum would be an asset to the state. He convinced American magnate Ronald Lauder to invest in the struggling station, confident that the channel would serve to neutralize the overwhelmingly leftist national media. Netanyahu’s efforts were largely disappointed when the broadcast of his luxurious travels appeared, and some believe that residual anger explains the recent parliamentary decisions.
Politicians on the right disagree. They repudiate the notion that Channel 10’s troubles stem from a personal grievance. “Channel 10’s shareholders are very well-to-do people,” said Likud member and chair of the Knesset Finance Committee Carmel Shama-Hacohen. “They are not bankrupt. There’s another two months before payment, during which creative solutions can be found. All the talk about how the coalition and rightist parties are persecuting the station is cheap demagoguery.” MK Robert Ilatov put it succinctly, saying that the situation “isn’t about closing Channel 10, but about payment of its debts.”
Former Washington correspondent Leo Rennert, in an article entitled “NY Times to the Rescue of a Netanyahu Foe,” conjectures that the New York Times’ comprehensive coverage of the predicament is indicative of the political interest at the heart of the debate. “What could possibly be deemed newsworthy by an American newspaper that a private Israeli television channel has fallen on bad financial times and might fold next month? And to splash its possible demise on the front page, no less?” he asks.
According to Rennert, the whole situation has been blown vastly out of proportion because liberal elements fear the loss of a similarly-minded ally. “Why the Times would find this so compelling is readily apparent: Channel 10 and the Times are ideological kindred spirits, “he explains. “Just as a left-wing agenda drives the Times’ news coverage, Channel 10 has been a thorn in the side of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his right-of-center governing coalition.” Rennert expresses the opinion of those who feel that liberal propaganda has unjustifiably transformed a governmental debt into a democratic crisis.
Whether the recent Knesset decisions originate from political or economic interests, it is clear that they have galvanized a highly charged ideological debate about the Israeli media. Does the impending demise of Channel 10 pose a threat to the resumption of democracy in Israel? Will the government intervene? Regardless of the answers, the fact that these questions are currently being asked spells hope for Israel and the rest of the Western world.
by Joseph Kadoch
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