The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israel’s ruling party used Facebook to track ‘antigovernment’ journalists

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, chairs the weekly cabinet meeting, at his office in Jerusalem on Sunday. (Abir Sultan via AP)
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JERUSALEM — Israel’s ruling Likud party used Facebook to track the activities and posts of certain journalists it perceives as antigovernment, a member of the party, which is headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said in a public debate on Saturday.

Likud parliamentarian David Bitan, who serves as chairman of the government coalition, told the gathering that he and some friends had been following the Facebook pages of journalists hired recently to set up a new public broadcasting service.

“We went and we checked the Facebook pages of these people. We saw what they are writing and I will tell you that we are talking about people who are leftist. They want to impose their own agenda on the new channel,” he said in the forum.

Bitan has been leading a crusade recently against the establishment of the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation. The new public television and radio channel, which was slated to launch in the coming months, was approved by the government in 2014 to replace the country’s antiquated Israel Broadcasting Authority.

Last week, Netanyahu expressed his agreement with Bitan, establishing a committee tasked with finding a way to keep open the old Israel Broadcasting Authority and shutter the new media outlet. The committee will present its findings in three weeks.

The prime minister and his supporters think the new public service channel is not working out as initially planned because there is not enough government supervision and because some of the newly employed journalists are overtly critical of his government and policies.

It’s a huge U-turn for Netanyahu, who two years ago called the change “essential” and “necessary.”

Despite the political wavering, intensive work breaking down the old television and radio channels has already started. Deals were reached with powerful unions and generous severance packages handed out to workers who agreed to quit voluntarily.

The new broadcasting corporation has started its work, too, poaching media personalities from competing outlets and preparing content for a launch date that has already been postponed several times.

The whole process has cost Israeli taxpayers millions of dollars.

And, the actions of Netanyahu, who is also the country's communications minister, have come under severe scrutiny. The revelation on Saturday that members of his party were snooping around the private Facebook pages of journalists has also drawn a harsh response from the local media.

Critics of the prime minister say that the new public broadcasting service should be free of political influence. They see Netanyahu’s intentions as a clear attack on media freedom. Others say that yet another deviation from what was originally proposed will be a huge waste of public funds.

He also faces political opposition, including from members of his own coalition. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon announced last week that he would not support the dramatic turnabout, citing excessive costs and the loss of jobs for hundreds of people recently hired by the new corporation. Kahlon even said he would be willing to see new elections on this issue.

After his comments were publicized, the Union of Journalists in Israel called on the attorney general to investigate the legality of Bitan's actions tracking the postings of journalists on Facebook.

“Closing down public broadcasting just because the prime minister can’t control it crosses a red line reminiscent of a totalitarian regime and not a democratic society like Israel,” said Yair Tarchitsky, union chairman. He likened the government’s actions to McCarthyism and said professional journalists were being delegitimized with political labeling.

Those who support Netanyahu’s aims to dismantle the new service say it is the corporation that is a waste of public funds, especially if it turns out to be antigovernment.

“It’s not going in the direction that we want. It is clear that the corporation will be left-leaning, according to what they are talking about. The journalists and workers are talking, they are tweeting, there is a red line that we will not allow it to cross,” said Bitan during an interview last week with Israel’s Channel 2 news.

Established in 1948, the Israel Broadcasting Authority was Israel’s sole television and radio outlet until commercial channels began broadcasting in the 1990s. Until four years ago, it was funded by an annual tax levied from television set owners. Now it is financed by the government.

Revelations several years ago that the authority’s expenditures were hugely inflated even as it draws a small percent of television audiences led the government to deem an overhaul of public service television as necessary.