Friday, June 5, 2015

Bernard Avishai on State Manipulation of the Press in Israel

In the United States, the first amendment to our constitution famously says "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." The Supreme Court has found these rights to be a fundamental (implicit) feature of an ordered concept of liberty such that these prohibitions must  apply equally to state legislatures.  See Gitlow v. New York (1925)(freedom of speech); Near v. Minnesota (1931)(freedom of the press). So in the United States it would be unthinkable to have a law that prohibits the free distribution of a newspaper. Not so in Israel. 

Bernard Avishai has an article in the New Yorker lamenting government manipulation of the free press in Israel. He focuses on the fact that, since the March election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reserved for himself the post of minister of communication. Avishai suggests that this post in Israel's political climate provides temptations to politically influence press coverage in troubling ways.

Here is Avishai (excerpted):
Netanyahu dissolved his government last November to remove two obstacles. The first ... was opposition by centrists within his government, including Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, to the “Jewish nation” bill, which would have constrained the Supreme Court’s ability to protect Arab citizens’ rights. The second—less noticed but perhaps more consequential—was a bill advanced in the Knesset to prohibit any major newspaper from being distributed for free. The obvious target of the legislation was Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom, a free tabloid that’s become Israel’s most widely circulated newspaper. Adelson was reported to have lost as much as three million dollars a month on it—simply, it seems, to boost Netanyahu and his Likud Party. The day it became clear that the newspaper bill, supported by Lapid and Livni, would get a Knesset majority, Netanyahu fired his dissident ministers and called for new elections.
Netanyahu won reĆ«lection, and the legislation’s sponsors lost their leverage. But the Prime Minister’s maneuvering for control of the news media did not end with the sinking of the bill. While forming his new government, he extracted written pledges from potential coalition partners not to vote against any legislative initiative or regulatory decision by the minister of communications, coyly implying that he might add the post to his responsibilities as Prime Minister—which he did. This role, and these pledges, position Netanyahu to regulate cellular service and Internet providers, license private broadcast channels, and influence the management of public television and radio. 
.... [Netanyahu has signaled] that regulatory power can be used to engender broadcasting more or less friendly to Likud’s policies, not by directly intimidating journalists but by shaping ambient pressures on owners and managers of the media companies. .... 
Netanyahu’s regulatory sword is ... poised over Channel Two, Israel’s dominant commercial television channel. Two separate media companies, Reshet and Keshet, share access to Channel Two, and jointly support the country’s leading news broadcast.... [N]either Reshet nor Keshet would like [this arrangement] terminated. That would mean surrendering their established drawing power and sacrificing advertising premiums. It would also force each company to assume the cost of building (or acquiring) a separate news staff, almost certainly disbanding Channel Two’s veteran organization in the process.... [T]he total cost of forcing Reshet and Keshet to break their arrangement would be about eighty million dollars.
.... Many suspected ... that Netanyahu wanted Channel Two broken up ... because the station’s power to challenge his government was too great. .... Now, however, Netanyahu is in charge of the communications ministry, which “controls the future of Channel Two’s gains and losses with a single decision,” [media correspondent Nati Tucker] told me.
.... Netanyahu need not prompt the firing of his critics to get his way. The status quo works well enough for Likud’s agenda; it is enough for the media to establish what Orwell called a “mental atmosphere” that makes alternative quos seem impossible. It is enough for Netanyahu that Channel Two reports routine ministerial statements as if they were news, and appoints correspondents for “Arab affairs” (which might as well be called “what our enemies are thinking”) and for “military affairs,” who pick up where I.D.F. spokespeople leave off. It is enough to lump Arab citizens into “the Arab sector,” and to call the West Bank “Judea and Samaria,” and to speak of every insurgent act as “terror.” It is enough for stylish anchors to project a knowing cynicism, cutting guests off the way Israelis like to drive, so that discussions of the Palestinian issue descend into raised voices, special pleading, and spectacle. Channel Two, in this sense, already valorizes the most commonly expressed attitudes, which its reporters refer to as “the consensus.” That’s Netanyahu’s real victory. .... 
Netanyahu is not above trying to stifle dissent when he thinks he can get away with it, though.  .... Channel the most liberal of the three main Israeli television channels, the edgiest in its comedy, and also the least profitable. In the past, the government has loaned money to the channel, with the understanding that the grant of a pending fifteen-year operating license would hinge on Channel Ten meeting a schedule of repayments. Originally, the broadcasting authority set the license payment at just more than four million dollars, due on June 1st of this year. But.... just ten days before Channel Ten’s license was scheduled to expire—[Netanyahu] raised the cost of renewal back to four million dollars. ....  
The last keys under Netanyahu’s fingers are public media. ... Levi Eshkol’s government began television broadcasts in 1968; by 1972, you could walk down any street at nine o’clock, when the nightly news came on, and hear all the sets amplifying the voice of Haim Yavin, Israel’s Walter Cronkite, as loudly as if it were from the speakers of an outdoor meeting..... Likud’s Menachem Begin... established the precedent of making national solidarity a rival of press freedom at the I.B.A. He appointed as its director-general the late Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, Yair’s father, who fired a “leftist” news producer and banned interviews with P.L.O. members. Netanyahu’s influence is now felt in a similar way. During the run-up to the election, Channel One aired rightist satire that was so strident and mocking that it seemed to have been produced along with Likud campaign videos. Nobody who works for the I.B.A., the former Haaretz columnist Lily Galili told me, knows which jobs are safe.
Do read the whole thing at the New Yorker (linked above).

As Bernard Avishai has said elsewhere, the Israeli polity needs to be upgraded to Democracy 2.0. A constitution that prohibits laws abridging freedom of speech and freedom of the press is on the to do list. So is a government and civic culture that values an independent and diverse press over right wing national solidarity.