Bibi Times: Re­la­tion­ship with me­dia tan­gled

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - By Maayan Lubell

“You have to play the me­dia like a pi­ano,” an ad­viser re­calls be­ing told by his ex-boss, Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu. But crit­ics say Ne­tanyahu, known as “Bibi”, is hit­ting the wrong note when it comes to the me­dia, weak­en­ing press free­dom and hold­ing sway over TV broad­cast­ers in a coun­try that bills it­self as the Mid­dle East’s only true democ­racy. Al­ready Is­rael’s long­est-serv­ing leader since David Ben-Gu­rion, Ne­tanyahu wields broad power. As well as be­ing prime min­is­ter he is econ­omy min­is­ter, for­eign min­is­ter, re­gional co­op­er­a­tion min­is­ter and com­mu­ni­ca­tions min­is­ter.

That con­cen­tra­tion of author­ity has raised eye­brows among crit­ics, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to the me­dia. Elected to a fourth term in March this year, op­po­nents, mem­bers of the press and me­dia ex­perts say Ne­tanyahu not only en­joys the un­bend­ing sup­port of Is­rael’s most pop­u­lar news­pa­per but holds the keys to the sur­vival of two TV news chan­nels, too. The prime min­is­ter, who heads a rightwing coali­tion and has de­scribed broad­cast­ers as overly crit­i­cal, says his aim is to strengthen plu­ral­ism, bring in new play­ers and boost com­pe­ti­tion in a sec­tor many Is­raelis see as lean­ing heav­ily left.

“I com­pletely re­ject claims that I’m try­ing to take over the me­dia. I am in favour of a mul­ti­plic­ity of chan­nels,” Ne­tanyahu told Is­raeli jour­nal­ists in a brief­ing in May. Rather than the nightly news, it is the free-sheet morn­ing press that many op­po­nents see as pro­mot­ing Bibi’s agenda. Since 2007, US casino bil­lion­aire Shel­don Adel­son, a ma­jor Ne­tanyahu sup­porter, has pub­lished a free hand­out called Is­rael Hayom, Is­rael To­day. It now has the na­tion’s largest cir­cu­la­tion, eclips­ing Ye­dioth Ahronoth, founded in 1939.

With a daily dose of pro-Bibi head­lines, and of­ten re­cy­cling the gov­ern­ment’s talk­ing points ver­ba­tim, the news­pa­per has drawn crit­i­cism even from mem­bers of Ne­tanyahu’s gov­ern­ment. “Is­rael Hayom is Pravda, it’s the mouth­piece of one man - the prime min­is­ter,” Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Naf­tali Ben­nett, who heads a far-right, pro-set­tle­ment party, said last year. Adel­son bats away crit­i­cism of his pub­li­ca­tion. De­bat­ing last year whether Is­rael can be both Jewish and demo­cratic, he said: “I don’t think the Bible says any­thing about democ­racy ... Is­rael isn’t go­ing to be a demo­cratic state. So what?” A spokesman for Adel­son did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

In court doc­u­ments filed in Fe­bru­ary in re­ply to a pe­ti­tion re­quest­ing the pa­per be de­clared pro­pa­ganda and banned ahead of the elec­tion, the news­pa­per and Ne­tanyahu both said the prime min­is­ter had no present or past in­volve­ment in Is­rael Hayom or what it prints. But the pa­per did say its ide­ol­ogy was in line with Ne­tanyahu, whose of­fice has ac­knowl­edged that he is a “per­sonal friend” of the pa­per’s ed­i­tor and owner. The Supreme Court re­jected the pe­ti­tion.

Sev­eral Is­rael Hayom jour­nal­ists de­clined to com­ment, but for­eign af­fairs ed­i­tor Boaz Bis­muth said the crit­i­cism was based on an­i­mos­ity to­wards Ne­tanyahu and com­peti­tors’ anger at los­ing ground to the pa­per. “In seven years I’ve never had any in­ter­ac­tion about what I write with any­one out­side,” he said. “I re­port to my ed­i­tor.”

Ye­dioth Ahronoth, which has lost ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue as its cir­cu­la­tion has fallen be­hind Is­rael Hayom, is crit­i­cal of Ne­tanyahu. That has led to pub­lic spats, with Ne­tanyahu ac­cus­ing its pub­lisher of try­ing to over­throw his lead­er­ship. Ye­dioth’s pub­lisher, Noni Mozes, did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment, but the news­pa­per said its jour­nal­ists op­er­ated with ut­most pro­fes­sion­al­ism, as ex­pected in a free democ­racy. “Jour­nal­ism’s role is to ex­pose wrong­do­ing and crit­i­cize the gov­ern­ment,” the news­pa­per said. “Re­gret­tably this is not taken for granted any more with the di­rec­tion in which Is­raeli me­dia is headed in the past few years.”

Self-Cen­sor­ship

The tan­gles over Is­rael Hayom are only one area in which crit­ics see Ne­tanyahu as be­ing com­pro­mised. There is greater con­cern about the in­flu­ence he has over TV oper­a­tions as Is­rael’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions min­is­ter. The coun­try is in the midst of gov­ern­ment-man­dated re­forms that will trans­form the broad­cast land­scape, and as com­mu­ni­ca­tions min­is­ter, Ne­tanyahu is driv­ing the changes.

State-run Is­rael Broad­cast­ing Author­ity (IBA) is ex­pected to be shut down and re­placed by a new body. The re­forms have been in the works for a while, but since tak­ing over the com­mu­ni­ca­tions port­fo­lio in May, IBA jour­nal­ists say Ne­tanyahu has made his pres­ence felt from afar. Fear­ing for their ca­reers, jour­nal­ists say out­put has be­come less crit­i­cal of Ne­tanyahu. “When was the last time you saw us run a re­port that shook up the gov­ern­ment?” IBA re­porter Rotem Avrut­sky told Reuters. “Cen­sor­ship is the minds of the jour­nal­ists. They’re afraid of their pro­fes­sional fu­ture.”

A pub­lic coun­cil is meant to oversee the process of wind­ing up IBA and es­tab­lish­ing its suc­ces­sor. But its mem­bers, se­lected months ago, have not been ap­proved by Ne­tanyahu. That means de­ci­sion-making re­mains in the hands of the min­istry’s di­rec­tor-gen­eral, who was ap­pointed by the prime min­is­ter. Bit­ter dis­putes over bud­gets and lay­offs have en­sued. “He is con­stantly cre­at­ing an at­mos­phere of fi­nan­cial and ex­is­ten­tial un­cer­tainty, keep­ing peo­ple on their toes and by that cre­at­ing lever­age,” said Elad Man, a le­gal an­a­lyst for The Sev­enth Eye, a long-run­ning Is­raeli me­dia re­view pro­gramme.

The Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Min­istry said ap­proval of the coun­cil was de­layed by Jewish hol­i­days in Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber and the process would con­tinue “in the com­ing days”. The prime min­is­ter’s of­fice did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Broad­cast Over­haul

As well as IBA, which Avrut­sky de­scribed as “just one link in the cre­ation of a docile, sub­mis­sive me­dia”, Ne­tanyahu’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions role gives him a say over the fu­ture of Is­rael’s most pop­u­lar news show, Chan­nel Two News. Un­der a sep­a­rate gov­ern­ment-led ini­tia­tive, Chan­nel Two, a com­mer­cial sta­tion, is ex­pected to be split up by 2017, which would lead to the break-up of its news op­er­a­tion.

A panel set up by Ne­tanyahu to over­haul broad­cast­ing reg­u­la­tion is meant to sub­mit its find­ings by the end of the year. The liq­ui­da­tion of IBA, and the es­tab­lish­ment of a bet­ter-run state broad­caster, is widely seen as pos­i­tive in Is­rael. But any changes to the free-to-air com­mer­cial sta­tions, Chan­nel Two and 10, are seen as a con­cern.

Am­non Abramovitz, Chan­nel Two’s po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and a Ne­tanyahu critic, said the gov­ern­ment over­haul amounted to bul­ly­ing by the prime min­is­ter. “When you have a loaded gun, you don’t have to shoot it, ev­ery­one knows you have it,” he told Reuters. “There’s no direct warn­ing, but there is this con­stant threat in know­ing he, as com­mu­ni­ca­tions min­is­ter, rules and can set up new chan­nels.”

For Tehilla Shwartz Alt­shuler, the Is­rael Democ­racy In­sti­tute’s me­dia ex­pert, the prime min­is­ter wants to get even with crit­ics. “Ne­tanyahu wants to ed­u­cate and in some ways even take vengeance on the me­dia,” she said. “But in this war, no one is in­no­cent, no side is clean.” Is­rael Hayom, Ye­dioth Ahronoth, Chan­nel Two, Chan­nel 10 and the IBA all have an axe to grind in one way or an­other. Yet Shwartz Alt­shuler sees Ne­tanyahu as spin­ning the grind­stone. “He tells peo­ple, ‘don’t pay at­ten­tion to what is writ­ten, they are liars, don’t be­lieve them’. This comes with a price,” she said. “It gives him short-term gains at the ballot box, but in the long term it is detri­men­tal to democ­racy.” —Reuters

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