TV Channel's Shutdown Puts Israeli Free Speech at Risk

Article Summary
The possible closure of Israel’s debt-plagued Channel 10 could lead to a day when half of Israeli media outlets are not only state-owned, writes Ben-Dror Yemini, but politically controlled by the prime minister's office.

Let me start with a full disclosure: Eight years ago I was the recipient of a prize bestowed by Israel’s Media Watch for media criticism. Over the years, notable writers such as Amnon Dankner, Amiram Lord, Irit Linur, Kalman Liebskind and Dr. Esther Herzog were among some of the recipients of this prize. In my humble opinion, IMW has done the right thing, monitoring and reporting political bias, half-truths, lies and falsehoods.

The snag, however, is that in recent weeks this NGO has been participating in a campaign against Channel 10. With the channel defaulting on its debts and possibly seeing its guarantees forfeited, its employees face the grim specter of mass layoffs or shutdown. But IMW is actually pleased, maintaining there’s no need to help a channel that goes belly-up. It also adds a political reason: “Having disseminated urban legends as news and having let its correspondents off the hook after demonstrating poor ethical norms and having even wiretapped the people it has covered, this channel is not worthy of the compassion of the public coffers.”

Similarly to media outlets in other democracies, the Israeli media is worthy of criticism and then some. Though occasionally marred by misconduct, urban legends, falsehoods and bias, these media issues should be left for a public debate. And that’s precisely the reason why we need an organization such as the IMW, which irks most journalists.

But as soon as IMW runs a campaign to shut down this channel, it stands to lose at least one supporter — yours truly. Channel 10 boasts many competent journalists on its roster, some of whom have occasionally peeved the undersigned. Dealing with media criticism, this column, among other things, has tackled this cohort of annoyers. And that is the quintessence of a free media, which allows for discussions, arguments, criticism and polemics. [Channel 10 is in the middle of arbitration with the Netanyahu family after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused it of libeling him by airing its so-called Bibi Tours investigation in 2010, which raised allegations that the PM was double billing for his trips abroad.] If media outlets were to be shut down just because of certain shortcomings, hardly any outlet in the world would last more than a week. Truth be told, it seems that Channel 10 has a leftist penchant, even by comparison to other outlets. Occasionally the Channel would sport the image of the establishment’s enemy. Yet this depicts only a partial image. Channel 10 was the only outlet that dared confront the illustrious leader of the social protest [Daphne Leef] whom most media outlets elevated to near sainthood status. Judged solely on the merits of the issue, the claims made by IMW are ludicrous.

The Israeli media is going through a rough patch, even a very rough one. This is happening all over the free world, but as is always the case with Israel, it comes with extra vigor. It is not entirely impossible that within a few years’ time, maybe less, there will be only two or three media outlets left in the country, half of which would not only be state-owned but also politically controlled by the Prime Minister's Office. All of the media's sins during this era, which might soon draw to a close, will be deemed virtuous compared with what might unfold.

Not just a business, the media bats for two teams — the commercial and the democratic ones. It doesn’t matter whether it’s because of the economy, mismanagement or other reasons. What is clear is that the fall of a media outlet such as Channel 10 would harm not only the hundreds of its employees, who would be made redundant, but also cause great harm to the freedom of expression — because it’s better having an annoying and unbalanced channel than having a closed one.

The decision now rests with the politicians. At their will, Channel 10 will either get the thumbs-up or thumbs-down. IMW has made some serious allegations, and not just political ones, regarding the conduct of the channel — allegations to which I have listened attentively. Yet all of them are dwarfed in view of the prospects that a media outlet could be shut down only because someone wants to settle a score with it. Had the channel been airing reports on the achievements of organic cultivation in the plantations of the outposts, no questions about the continuation of its broadcast would have been asked.

Poor discretion is not IMW’s exclusive domain. It could very well be the discretion of the powers that be. Citing legalistic formalities, they won't interfere. This could herald a sad milestone for the freedom of expression in Israel, and a much more significant one compared to other milestones that have raised an unmerited hue and cry.

Found in: media, benjamin netanyahu

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