Israel TV Station’s Troubles Reflect a Larger Political Battleground
By Ethan Bronner
The New York Times
December 26, 2011
JERUSALEM — An Israeli television station reported last spring on numerous trips Benjamin Netanyahu had taken as an elected official to Paris, London and New York before becoming prime minister in 2009. Accompanied by his wife, he flew first class and stayed in baronial hotel suites. Mrs. Netanyahu had her hair styled and her wardrobe dry-cleaned. The bills, displayed on screen, were paid for by wealthy friends.
Traveling in luxury at the expense of others may violate public service rules and the law. It also doesn’t look good. But instead of accolades for its journalism, Channel 10 is now fighting for its life, and Mr. Netanyahu’s hostility toward it is being cast as part of a broader cultural and political war in Israel between the left and the right involving efforts to control the judiciary, the reporting of news and public discourse.
It is a battle that most immediately pits the rightist governing coalition against the liberal elite as the government refuses to postpone the station’s debt, which could force it to close.
“The fight over Channel 10 is partly a matter of revenge — Netanyahu wants to make them pay for what they did to him,” argued Nachman Shai, a member of Parliament from the opposition party Kadima and a former news executive who helped set up Channel 10 a decade ago. “But it is also part of a three-front struggle — over the courts, civil society and the media. The right wants to control every institution. Freedom of expression is at risk.”
Those around Mr. Netanyahu, who filed a million-dollar libel suit against the station, say Channel 10 is a failed business whose payments have been forgiven numerous times and is hiding behind political complaints and inflated concerns about free speech to make the public absorb its debts.
On its face, the request by Channel 10 is modest. It owes $11 million, most of it to an official regulatory body, the rest in taxes. Ayelet Metzger, deputy director general of the regulatory body, said both her agency and the Finance Ministry had agreed to postpone the debt for a year.
But a parliamentary committee this month voted against doing so. Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition obliged its members to vote no. This means that Channel 10 will, in theory, shut its doors at the end of January, when its 10-year franchise ends.
In practice, there will be a drawn-out battle to save it because of the belief that it plays a vital role in public debate through its crusading investigative news broadcasts. The only other independent station is Channel 2, which is also facing economic woes.
Otherwise, Mr. Netanyahu has strong influence over other media outlets: the state-owned Channel 1, State Radio and a freely distributed and successful newspaper, Yisrael Hayom, owned by a close American friend, the billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
President Shimon Peres, a member of Kadima, has weighed in, saying that the channel’s effort to survive is “a struggle for Israel’s democratic character.” In a related comment, he also declared himself “ashamed” of several bills being considered in Parliament that he believes chip away at democracy in Israel: an antidefamation law, one that silences loudspeakers issuing the Muslim call to prayer and another that prevents foreign governments from financing left-wing Israeli groups.
Last summer, Parliament passed a law making it possible to sue anyone who advocates boycotting things Israeli, including West Bank settlements.
Channel 10 infuriated the Netanyahus over the reports of lavish travel, when he was a member of Parliament and as finance minister, and spurred a continuing investigation by the state comptroller. But the channel also angered previous leaders, playing a key role in exposing the way the 2006 Lebanon war was conducted and publicizing suspicions of corrupt land deals in the family of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
It brought to the screen the fate of a Palestinian doctor in Gaza whose three daughters were killed in the 2008-2009 offensive there by Israeli forces, and showed a minister from the nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu arriving at the home of a woman suspected to be his mistress and leaving the house the next morning.
“I believe that if we die, the message will be clear that if you have the guts to open a critical news company, you will go bankrupt,” said Raviv Drucker, the station’s chief investigative reporter, who broke the story of Mr. Netanyahu’s travels.
An executive of Channel 10 who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that he had been told by a top aide of Mr. Netanyahu that if Mr. Drucker were given a long vacation, postponing the debt would be a lot easier. Mr. Netanyahu’s office said no such conversation had occurred.
In previous years, Mr. Netanyahu actually intervened to save Channel 10 twice because, he said, he favors increasing broadcast outlets to expand the marketplace of ideas and debate. The Israeli news media, he and his aides complain, lean to the left and what the country needs is an Israeli version of Fox News.
Some say that is what Mr. Netanyahu thought he was helping to create when about five years ago he persuaded his friend, the American billionaire Ronald S. Lauder, to invest in the ailing Channel 10. But the structure of the channel makes it hard for owners to intervene in content.
Nonetheless, after the broadcast on Mr. Netanyahu’s travels was shown, the prime minister cooled his friendship with Mr. Lauder. Mr. Lauder declined to comment.
Another owner of the channel is the Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. The third and largest shareholder is Yossi Meiman, an Israeli political liberal who has faced financial difficulties because of his investment in a gas pipeline from Egypt that has been repeatedly blown up since the Egyptian revolution.
Amnon Dankner, former editor of the newspaper Maariv and a veteran journalist, said that the threat to Channel 10 worried him deeply.
“For the first time, I fear the end of critical and investigative news as we have known it in Israel,” he said. “If Channel 10 closes, Channel 2 will grow tamer. Since childhood I have felt that freedom of the press was marching forward here. Now I feel it is retreating.”
But other journalists say the only thing that has changed is who is in power. Prime ministers from the Labor Party like David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin also held the press tightly, meeting with senior editors regularly.
“When the prime minister was ‘one of us,’ it seemed totally natural for him to silence his critics,” Ari Shavit, a columnist for the newspaper Haaretz, wrote in Thursday’s issue. “After 30 years of the media running roughshod over Likud, Likud is tyrannizing the media.”
Nahum Barnea, the main political columnist for the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, said that while the Channel 10 problem was about a failed business, it was part of the struggle for control of public discourse in Parliament.
“Many of the proposed laws have a common denominator,” he said. “People in the coalition think it is time for them to change the rules — the rules regarding the Palestinians, the Arab sector in Israel, the left and the media. The Channel 10 story is part of that. And if we are left with only one commercial channel, we will be a weaker democracy.”