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Closed Circuit: ISRAEL’S MEDIA

The other day, I had to pay my TV licensing bill. Forking over the annual $120 fee that every TV owner is obligated to pay here, caused me to start to think about the independence of Israeli media and where exactly my money was going.

For a country with a very small media market (total population just over 6 million) Israel has a very unique relationship with its media outlets.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the Israeli press underwent a significant change, not unlike that which occurred in Europe and North America. The media gradually came to be controlled by a limited number of organizations, whereas the papers published by political parties began to disappear. Today, three large, privately-owned conglomerates based in Tel Aviv dominate the mass media in Israel.

Ha’aretz, founded in 1919, is Israel’s oldest daily, enjoying prestige and a reputation for solid, high-level reporting. It is owned by the Shocken media conglomerate, which also owns a publishing house and many local papers.

Yediot Aharonot, founded in 1939, has the highest circulation – some two-thirds of all Hebrew newspaper readers. Such a circulation is virtually unheard of in Western countries. The paper is the major component of the Mozes family media conglomerate, which also owns a publishing house, produces magazines and local papers and is part owner of a music firm.

Ma’ariv, founded in 1948, was for many years the paper with the largest circulation, but has since lost ground to its rival, Yediot Aharonot. It is owned by the Nimrodi family which, like the Mozes conglomerate, also owns a publishing company and a music firm and produces popular magazines, as well as local newspapers.

Globes is a financial daily founded in 1983, the youngest of Israel’s daily newspapers. It is privately owned and is widely read in the business world.

The last of the old political party papers folded almost ten years ago, although three religious parties still publish newspapers : Hatsofeh, Hamodia and Yated Ne’eman.

In addition, several hundred weekly local papers still exist. Many are owned by the Mozes and Shocken conglomerates.

The magazine market is similarly controlled by the Big Two. La’isha, a women’s weekly, is owned by the Mozes family, and has the largest circulation in the country. The Nimrodi conglomerate publishes two weekly magazines
for youth and children, as well as a women’s monthly, At. The Israel Defense Forces weekly, Bamahane, first published in 1948, is meant for the armed forces, but is also read by many civilians.

What about the broadcast media? Kol Israel (Voice of Israel) operates eight radio networks which offer programming in 17 languages. Galei Tzahal(station of the Israel Defense Forces) broadcasts around the clock, with a news and music format. Then there are dozens of pirate radio stations ranging from the well-established nationalist Arutz-7, to the ultra-Orthodox fly-by-night operations.

Television only began in Israel in 1967; today there’s Channel One, a State-run channel with programming in Hebrew, some Arabic and even less English. In 1994, the second commercial channel started operation. Several years later, cable television, funded by monthly subscription fees, began to be offered so that Israelis can get aggravated by the news offerings of CNN, BBC, and SkyNews, and tune in to the sports and entertainment of French, Italian, Russian and American channels as well.

Kol Israel and the state-run television channel operate under the aegis of the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), which is subject to the IBA Law(1965) that defines broadcasting as an independent government service, charged with giving expression to diverse perspectives. The IBA is headed by an executive committee, all political appointees, and by a
director-general, ditto. IBA broadcasting is financed by advertising on radio, public service announcements, as well as my TV license fee.

Channel One, constantly subject to intense political infighting before the appointment of its executive bodies and the approval of its budget, will unavoidably remain part of officialdom and be subject to its party bosses.

The present structure of the two television authorities; one a state organ and the other a public body, with each answerable to an appointed committee which supposedly functions as an independent board of directors, is the result of legislation following political compromises, pressures, and recommendations of public commissions.

Both Channel Two and the cable companies see themselves as the rivals of the state television station. Not only does the IBA have the exclusive right to collect the annual licensing fee, it also augments its revenues by selling radio spots and by screening paid “service announcements” and “program sponsorships” on television. These “sponsorships” are supposedly a form of contribution to the IBA but, in fact, the sponsors ensure that their name is repeated ceaselessly and the benefit is undoubtedly equal to that of a regular advertiser.

While news coverage is still theoretically subject to military censorship, in practice there’s very little that’s censored for military reasons alone. Veteran journalist Moshe Negbi writes: “It seems that the all-powerful censors are no longer government officials but rather the enemies within – the people who own the media and therefore enjoy tremendous power to control its editorial content. These people may use their power to censor both information and opinion which they perceive as detrimental to their interests.”

As mentioned above, ninety percent of the Israeli media are in the hands of three families, two of which own
pieces of both the print and broadcast media. In that situation, it is extremely difficult for a journalist who fights for his right to speak freely and loses his job to find another. That can convince some not to fight in the first place.

The papers have not always done a proper job reporting on the improprieties of their senior officials. No less troublesome than publishers or editors interfering with their reporters’ work is the very real possibility of reporters, who are all on personal (rather than union) contracts and whon have no protection from the law, censoring themselves.

Cross-ownership is no less of a problem. Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi calls it “a state of monopoly the like of which is unknown in any modern democracy.” He calls the quality of relations between the Nimrodi, Mozes and Schocken empires “not competition, but rivalry, which makes for a very brutal array of shifting alliances that oscillate between extreme hostility and partnership.”

What’s more, the typical consumer is seldom aware of the
cross-ownership. Who thinks of asking, when reading a feature story about an upcoming TV show in one of the papers, whether the Channel 2 licensee broadcasting it
(programming for the commercial station is produced by three separate consortiums, which air their shows on different nights) is the one that the paper owns an interest in?

Some suggest that the remedy to the problem of Israel’s increasingly ‘unfree’ press could lie in government legislation. More government oversight of the fourth estate might indeed be in order–but I would be happier giving my $120 per year to some private initiative that would create at least one truly independent media outlet in Israel.