Battle rages over Israeli state TV


The future of public broadcasting in Israel is being decided in the last days of the Knesset summer session as the Economics Committee puts the final touches to a law that is supposed to lay the foundations for a new national broadcasting corporation.

But while the old broadcaster is being wound down and hundreds of new employees are being hired, the politicians are squabbling over who will control the new public television and radio channels.

The Israeli Broadcasting Authority (IBA) was based on the BBC, right down to the licence fee. For years, however, it has been failing to compete with newer commercial broadcasters, offering a meagre and outdated range of programmes.

In the last Knesset, former communications minister Gilad Erdan pushed through a draft of a new law that cancelled the licence fee and put in motion plans for shutting the IBA and replacing it with the new corporation.

However, in this Knesset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is acting as the communications minister and, backed by part of the Likud, has embarked on wide-ranging plans to change the media landscape.

Two weeks ago, a decision by Mr Netanyahu to delay the October launch of the new corporation by 18 months triggered a split in the cabinet.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon initially refused to allocate funds for the IBA's continuing operation or the salaries of hundreds of employees already hired by the new corporation. In a compromise, it was decided that the changeover would take place in early 2017, and Mr Kahlon then agreed to release the funds.

That did solve not the issue of political control, however. On Sunday, in a cabinet meeting, Culture Minister Miri Regev complained that the new corporation was being run by left-wingers and asked "why should we establish a corporation that we won't control".

Not all her colleagues agreed and on Monday Equalities Minister Gila Gamliel said that there had been statements "bordering on fascism" in cabinet. Another senior Likud MK, coalition chairman David Bitan, even suggested going back on the entire plan and resurrecting the IBA.

As the law has been thrashed out in the Knesset committee, Mr Netanyahu has been preparing a reform of television whereby more independent channels will be granted licences to broadcast news.

The prime minister argues he wants diversity but his critics claim his motive is to heap pressure on the two existing commercial broadcasters, whose journalists have been critical of him.

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