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Israel’s new public broadcaster had a shaky start. Will it have a rocky road ahead?

Israeli domestic politics typically involves extensive negotiation, compromise, and coalition building. But even by the country’s standards the three years of wrangling over the new public broadcasting authority have been quite extraordinary for the sheer length of time they have taken and the battle that took place at the top of Government.

Attempts at reform of what was known as the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) were finally resolved the week before last, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon managed to agree on and implement a compromise plan. The discussions had been so fraught that at points there was the possibility that Netanyahu’s governing coalition may collapse.

So convoluted did the negotiations become, with every party trying to carve out a bit of broadcasting spectrum for their own constituency, that exasperated Communications Ministry Director General Sholomo Filber asked in a recent meeting: “Who else here wants a broadcast band?”

The final plan saw a new public broadcaster, known as the Israel Broadcasting Corporation or Kan, take to the air on Monday, 15 May, with a news division following 24 hours later.

The transition followed dramatic scenes on live television. Nightly news cast “Mabat” was cancelled with two hours’ notice after 49 years on-air, with the show’s team crying live on air.

The row even hit the unlikely forum of the Eurovision Song Contest, when an Israeli presenter seemed to say Israel would be withdrawing from the competition due to the change. This was a misunderstanding on the presenter’s part. While the IBA will not present the results in future, Israel will still compete.

Understandably it was the formation of this news division that caused the most controversy. An amendment to the Broadcasting Corporation bill that was being debated by the Knesset required the establishment of a specific news organisation.

Originally, the heads of both general programming and the news division were meant to operate alongside each other. This resulted in a two-page draft outlining how broadcast hours were to be divided, before rightly being deemed totally impractical.

The head of the news division will now be acting editor-in-chief of the news output until a judge-led committee is established. This committee will make managerial appointments. Kan will broadcast non-news content and six state radio stations, while the news corporation will also run the Reshet Bet radio station and digital media.

As in all vibrant democracies, there has long been tension between Israeli political leaders and the media in Israel. The press originally fell under the auspices of David Ben-Gurion’s Prime Minister’s office, a tradition continued by Netanyahu who was, until recently, acting communications minister as well as PM.

Netanyahu has also made no secret of his opinion that the public broadcaster singles out his government for unfair criticism. As Greer Fay notes in the Jerusalem Post, both Ben Gurion and Netanyahu “preferred state-controlled media to public broadcasting”.

The new model does not exactly seem designed for editorial independence and journalistic innovation, and one cannot help but wonder if that is deliberate on the part of Netanyahu. Kahlon is thought to have tried to reduce the ability of government meddling in the media.

Public sector shake-ups always take time to bed-in. This will be no different, and judgement should be reserved until long after the new broadcasters’ first week. However, if the inception has been anything to go by, there is a rocky road ahead for Israeli public media.

Charlotte Henry is Senior Press Officer at BICOM.