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Sharon Takes over Media Body; Critics See Threat to Freedom of Press

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Being Israel’s prime minister is never an easy job — but a few weeks ago Ariel Sharon took on another job when he became the minister in charge of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, which oversees the country’s public television and radio stations.

Critics are asking what the move means for the future of the free press in Israel.

Sharon is temporarily replacing Ra’anan Cohen, the Labor Party minister who resigned from the Cabinet. According to Israeli law, the prime minister automatically takes over portfolios abandoned when ministers quit.

“The fact that the prime minister didn’t hesitate to take over the job suggests that he is sending a message that no one may criticize his government with impunity,” said Yaron Ezrahi, who heads a communication and democracy project at the Israel Democracy Institute, a left-leaning Jerusalem think tank. “This is a setback for democracy, and it’s a very dramatic move.”

Created during the British Mandate period in Palestine and set up along the lines of the BBC, the quasi-governmental broadcasting authority runs several radio stations and two television channels.

Control of the authority long has been a political appointment — though analysts say it hasn’t made a big difference on news coverage one way or the other, as many reporters, editors and producers tend to be left wing, no matter who is in charge of the broadcasting authority.

When Likud Party chairman Sharon became prime minister in March 2001, part of the coalition deal stipulated that a Labor Party minister would take charge of the broadcasting authority.

After Cohen left the Cabinet and the IBA portfolio, Labor chairman and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer reportedly promised the post to Science, Culture and Sport Minister Matan Vilnai, also of Labor.

The IBA position would have fit nicely with Vilnai’s portfolio, but in the end it wasn’t given to him.

Labor officials say that’s because Vilnai endorsed Ben-Eliezer’s challenger for Labor Party leadership, Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna.

Ben-Eliezer’s spokesman blamed Sharon, claiming the prime minister wants to keep the IBA for himself so he can appoint Likud activists to key positions.

As usual, it’s all politics, even when it comes to freedom of the press.

Whether Likud or Labor, the broadcasting authority’s leadership always has been a political appointment, and often has leaned toward the left, according to Meir Ouziel, a media commentator for the Ma’ariv newspaper.

“There’s this sense that if the left controls the media, that’s OK, that’s normal,” Ouziel said. “But when somebody who isn’t from the ‘in’ crowd is in charge, then the situation isn’t considered normal. That’s the situation here.”

Politically speaking, Israeli broadcast journalists generally are considered more biased than Israeli print journalists, according to Yisrael Medad, a board member of Israel’s Media Watch. And the traditional bent of broadcasting authority journalism has generally been liberal — even left of liberal — despite its status as a public authority.

Both Labor and Likud politicians have had control over the broadcasting authority in the past. For the most part, both have been guilty of stacking the deck in favor of their political views, according to Medad.

“There is freedom of the press here, but there isn’t enough,” he said. “It’s limited.”

The prime minister, through the government, sets up the 36-member oversight committee for the IBA. Given that structure, some say it’s doubtful that a public broadcasting authority can be completely free..

“People say the prime minister is taking over?” Medad said. “It could be true. But the government has been running it anyway.”

The authority’s approximately $25 million annual budget is funded mainly by license fees for television sets, with about 20 percent of its revenue from advertising.

“It’s directly financed by the public,” Ezrahi said. “What that means is a moral share for every individual who pays for TV licensing. They’re paying directly for a public service.”

But it’s a public service that is inefficient and overly politicized, Ouziel countered.

“It doesn’t respond to 60 percent of Israeli society,” he said.

Unlike the situation in the United States, Israel offers very little in terms of alternative commercial broadcasting.

For television news, there is Channel Two, owned by several investors but also subject to political machinations and schemes — particularly when the various consortiums are vying for programming slots, Ezrahi noted.

There is little difference between the IBA’s Channel One and the independent Channel Two in reporting the news, Ouziel and Medad agreed.

On the radio, Israelis can listen to Galei Tzahal, the military radio station set up in 1950 and funded by the army, which receives its budget from the Defense Ministry.

Known as Army Radio, the station is broadcast on two channels to a primarily civilian audience. It’s popular for the music, but it’s reporting is not always professional, commented Medad. Nevertheless, no one complains about an overbearing military tone.

Until 1965, the broadcasting authority was under the control of the Prime Minister’s Office. The Knesset then passed legislation making the authority a public corporation, ostensibly run by a Cabinet minister who would implement the law.

The minister isn’t in direct control, but does wield a tremendous amount of influence.

Politicians of all stripes have been guilty, through their political operatives, of trying to sway news reporting, Ezrahi said. But this time, he believes, Sharon has gone too far, especially with the possibility mooted of early elections next year in which news coverage could influence voters.

Sharon stated several weeks ago that Israel needs “more patriotic television,” a comment that passed with little fanfare but should set off alarm bells, Ezrahi said.

“Patriotic public television is not an extension of government propaganda in democracies,” he said. “It serves the citizens. It’s not supposed to be patriotic.”

Ezrahi thinks Israelis haven’t absorbed the meaning of Sharon’s takeover because they’re more concerned with the current security and economic situation than with freedom of the press.

“If a journalist is risking his life to report the real news or the real conditions of the economy or if we should be getting gas masks, that is much more patriotic than a journalist who collaborates with the prime minister,” Ezrahi said.

But Ma’ariv’s Ouziel wouldn’t mind a little patriotism with his evening news.

“The local broadcasters already bend over backward to understand the claims of the terrorists and dictators,” he said. “It’s almost a religious stance, and it depresses me. The IBA is more left than some of the left-wing papers.”

Though it hasn’t been reflected in the news reporting since he took over, Sharon’s understanding of patriotism means “not asking any questions,” creating a broadcasting authority that is a tool for the government and not the public, said Mordechai Kremnitzer, chairman of the Israeli Press Association.

The press association already expressed alarm last month at the appointment of a new director general for the broadcasting authority, Joe Bar-El, who said he would receive and obey the instructions of the prime minister.

“We ask ourselves whether the IBA remains an independent, public body,” Kremnitzer said. “I’m afraid we can’t answer that affirmatively.”

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