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The Israeli government’s attack on free media

Nurit Canetti
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The Israeli government’s attack on free media

Published: 12 September 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Netanyahu has long manipulated the media, but the proposed communications law will subject the media to unprecedented political influence, writes NURIT CANETTI.

Israel’s free and independent media is threatened by a proposed new law that will change how the country’s communications market functions.

August 21 was the deadline for the public to submit objections to the Ministry of Communications' proposals. Civil organisations representing different professional sectors of the industry — journalists, producers, creators, TV channels, and others — hurried to submit documents filled with logical and legal explanations as to why the proposed law would harm free media and enable political control over journalists and broadcasters.

The rating committee wrote that "Israel will be the only country, with Russia, where the government is involved in collecting viewer data." Television channels warned that the news would be controlled by the government. The Journalists Association (whose chair is the author of this piece) stated that the law would weaken the public broadcasting corporation economically and politicise the regulation of broadcasting. There were also objections that the proposed law would abolish the mandatory separation between commercial broadcasting and news, and allow broadcasting news without a licence.

However, don’t hold your breath, almost certainly, most of the objections will be rejected. In the Israeli media, there's no doubt that Minister of Communications Shlomo Karhi's proposed law, which is complex and lengthy, is intended to sow chaos in the broadcast industry, weaken strong players, and subject communications systems to political influence.

In parallel with the weakening of public and commercial broadcasting systems, the proposed law provides economic benefits to Channel 14, considered "Netanyahu's home channel," and owned by the oligarch, Georgian-Israeli businessman Yitzhak Mirilashvili, co-founder of the largest social network in Russia, VK.

Channel 14 was established as a channel focused on "Israel's heritage", but then it was granted the right to broadcast news. It now features a news department with reporters, a daily news program, and various shows that host figures strongly aligned with Netanyahu and his party. This is likely the reason Netanyahu, who rarely grants interviews to the Israeli media (though he has given more than 20 interviews in recent months to the American media) chooses Channel 14 for any local interviews.

Netanyahu understood from the start that his path to unchallenged power passes through controlling the media.

Netanyahu's disregard for the Israeli media isn't new. He avoids media except during elections, when he can be heard or watched three times a day, often attacking the interviewers. Most of the Israeli press has surrendered to this pattern. He has manipulated the media to suit his needs, a skill he honed from the time he was a young politician.

Netanyahu understood from the start that his path to unchallenged power passes through controlling the media. In 2007, the free newspaper Israel Hayom was founded, funded generously by the late American-Jewish tycoon Sheldon Adelson. Over the years, it has become evident how directly involved Netanyahu was in its contents. Later, Channel 14 took a similar path.

During the investigations against Netanyahu, which resulted in criminal charges in three different cases, it became clear how much effort he put to persuade some wealthy cronies to buy Israeli television channels, and to establish a channel like the America's Fox News, that would serve him, in much the same way as Fox News served Donald Trump.

Minister of Transport Miri Regev was quoted as saying in a government meeting, 'What's the point of the corporation if we don't control it?'

This obsession with controlling the media played a significant role in the corruption cases.  For instance, Netanyahu is facing bribery and breach of trust charges for allegedly providing regulatory benefits to the owners of the website Walla! in exchange for favourable coverage.

Netanyahu also worked to place people loyal to him in media outlets. His office pressured media organisations to include individuals - not always journalists - loyal to his messages, in their broadcasts and editorial teams. After a new Israeli broadcasting corporation was established in 2015, replacing the old public broadcasting authority, Minister of Transport Miri Regev was quoted as saying in a government meeting, "What's the point of the corporation if we don't control it?" This, even though some of the key appointments in the corporation were made after dialogue with Netanyahu's office, as confirmed by a source close to the office at that time.

Karhi’s law is not the first time the Netanyahu government has attempted to stymie the media. In 2019, the government attempted to pass a law that would disconnect the independent news system from the rest of the corporation's broadcasts. Appeals were submitted to the Supreme Court, but in the end, it was the singer Netta Barzilai, who halted the process by winning the Eurovision contest. The European Broadcasting Union said Israel would not host the competition unless it operated an independent news division within its corporation and the government backed down.

The attempt to weaken the broadcasting corporation has now been reintroduced as part of the new Communications Law.

Beyond the legal and structural framework, Netanyahu’s attitude to controlling the media has created a culture that makes it hard for the media to do its job.

The efforts to coerce media outlets to hire people loyal to Netanyahu continue.  At the public radio station Galei Tzahal (where this writer works), there are continuous efforts to influence personnel decisions. In commercial media outlets, where owners often have additional business interests and seek favour from the government, non-journalist commentators aligned with Netanyahu and his party were introduced.

Many journalists, especially those in middle or lower positions, have been fired or pushed to work in marginalised media outlets.

Journalists also face relentless online trolling and harassment. In one election campaign, giant billboards were erected with pictures of prominent journalists under the slogan, "They won't decide for us."

Some of the reporters identified as "leftists" or loud opponents of the anti-democratic legislation have been subjected to verbal and physical violence by hostile crowds. A team from Channel 13 news was pelted with stones and attacked during a live broadcast of a terrorist attack. It's only one example among many.

Not all journalists have the emotional strength to withstand such attacks.

Some self-censor. Others realise that it's a battle for the soul of Israel's democracy and their professional lives and have started to express themselves more.

Many media outlets cannot deal with the pressure, which has economic implications. Operating in a constrained economic model, they increasingly find a way to collaborate with Netanyahu's expectations, while attempting to maintain their professional dignity.   

With the exception of  Haaretz, which is consistently left-wing, most media outlets in Israel are trying to maintain a balance in their coverage of the ongoing transformation, with a slight tendency towards opposition.

Both media and journalists in Israel have a long way to go to remove the yoke of Netanyahu's damaging rule. In the public sphere, which is now very active in protests, there is a lack of trust in the media, after it surrendered to Netanyahu for so many years, instead of awakening the public and forcing it to confront the path that Israel is taking.

But the communications law has spurred new concerns and both journalists and protesters are gearing up for a new fight.


Communications minister renews his attack against public broadcaster (Times of Israel)

What do you need to know about Tuesday's reasonableness court hearing? (Jerusalem Post)
The reasonableness standard law is the first and so far only judicial reform legislation to pass muster in the Knesset.

'Genuine regime change': Where the Netanyahu government's power-grab plan now stands (Haaretz)
The Netanyahu government is still trying to whitewash its plans to weaken the judiciary and super-charge government rule by calling them a “reform”. But what laws does the most extremist coalition in Israel's history want to pass?

What Menachem Begin understood a generation ago (Avichai Mendelblit, Haaretz)
The repeal of the reasonableness standard is no less grave than the attempt to appoint “political?” judges by changing the composition of the Judicial Appointments Committee.

Image: Benjamin Netanyahu reads an issue of The Marker (Emil Salman)

About the author

Nurit Canetti

Nurit Canetti is a journalist, news and current affairs broadcaster on Israel's Galey -Zahal public radio and the chairperson of the Union of Israeli Journalists.

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