JERUSALEM — Just an hour after Israel’s Press Council warned that media freedom in the country was “at risk,” the government shut down the state broadcaster’s venerable nightly news show.
The anchorwomen from Channel One’s evening news cried before the cameras after being informed that a sudden political decision meant that it would be the station’s last program after 49 years on the air.
The closing down of the Israel Broadcasting Authority did not come as a surprise. It has been more than three years — and much political wrangling — in the making. The news program had been losing viewers for years, and the whole public broadcasting authority had been accused of being corrupt and wasteful.
After numerous postponements, the authority had been slated to close May 14, but on Tuesday, David Han, the channel’s official liquidator, decided to go ahead and shutter the news program in what critics say is only the latest in the cruel and chaotic treatment of the authority.
“The ugly end for Israel Broadcasting Authority employees perfectly symbolizes the past three years, all of them cruel and capricious abuse imposed on them by the politicians,” said Yair Tarchitsky, chairman of Israel’s journalists’ union. “The public broadcasting authority needed a change, but this is not how you bring an end to an institution that for decades has been at the heart of the Israeli public.”
The one-hour closure notice shocked many in Israel’s news media industry. Journalists, technicians and former stars of “Mabat LaHadashot” (“A Glance at the News”) spoke angrily of the government’s decision to shutter the news show.
“This has been a difficult period for all of us, and giving us only a few minutes’ warning that it was the last show was a shock,” said Avi Muskal, an editor for Mabat.
He said the staff had been in the process of preparing a final farewell show for Sunday evening, including iconic footage of the channel’s early broadcasts and its coverage of illustrious news events aired exclusively by the channel long before regulators opened the airwaves to commercial competition.
“They did not even give us a chance to say goodbye properly,” said Muskal, who secured a job in the new entity Kan (Here), which will take the authority’s place. Of the more than 1,000 employees of the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s news division, only 437 journalists and technicians have been rehired by Kan. The fate of the others looks bleak.
Many of the broadcasting authority’s employees blame Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the drawn-out, messy process.
The prime minister said he wasn’t authorized to make such a decision and acknowledged that it “was done in a disrespectful way,” his office said in a statement Wednesday.
He maintained that he had fought to keep the channel’s news division.
Netanyahu had initially supported closing down the station, which was funded until recently by a public television tax, and embraced the creation of a new entity that would be more transparent, efficient and free of political influence.
But somewhere along the way, he and his cohorts started to express their doubts. Last summer, Netanyahu, who also held the position of communications minister, abruptly declared his preference for reforming the broadcasting authority.
He then faced fierce opposition from his coalition partners, including the finance minister, Moshe Kahlon, who made a monetary argument for sticking with the original plan. Recently, the two reached an agreement to open the new corporation but to create a separate news division.
Critics said the prime minister had not been happy with the way the news department was shaping up politically.
A senior official in Netanyahu’s office, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media, told The Washington Post that there were also problems when Kan’s management wasn’t rehiring journalists from the old broadcasting authority or was sticking them in demeaning roles.
The decision to finally shutter the authority came Tuesday afternoon during a meeting of coalition members. Channel One will air reruns over the next few days until Kan officially starts its broadcasts Monday.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Knesset member David Bitan, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party and chairman of the special committee that prepared an amendment to the initial legislation, said that he knew some of the broadcasting authority workers were dissatisfied but that efforts had been made to minimize the number of workers who would be harmed.
Opposition member Eitan Cabel called the process one of the most embarrassing and disgraceful events since he had arrived in the Knesset.
During the final broadcast, anchor Yaakov Ahimeir slammed the whole affair and wondered why a whole new entity was even being created.
“If this is how they make decisions, then this process is a stain on the government,” he said. “Every day something else, changing it from one date to another and then telling us an hour before that this will be our last broadcast as if we are criminals.”
Writing in the Israeli daily Maariv on Wednesday, commentator Ben Caspit called the decision to suddenly pull a program with so much history “unfortunate.”
“One does not close an institution the way one drives a stray dog out of the house,” he wrote. “One does not give an ignominious burial to what used to be the leading light of Israeli broadcasting.”