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Will Israel’s Plan To Dismantle Iconic Broadcasting Agency Deal Blow to Press Freedom?

The British have their treasured BBC. In the United States it’s NPR and PBS. In Germany it’s ARD. At various points, all these public media pillars have been accused of bias from one side or another of the political spectrum. But none has ever faced the prospect of actually being dismantled.

That is the reality now facing the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

Whether IBA’s soon-to-come demise will mark a blow against a biased and insulated liberal elite or an assault on press independence in a country where many say this value is under threat depends very much on whom you ask. But no one doubts that the end of the broadcast enterprise the Zionists launched eight years before the state itself will mark an important milestone in the history of Israel’s media.

According to a government plan, IBA will close on March 31. But the possibility of an extension could keep the termination at bay for many more months. Meanwhile plans for a successor agency remain vague, along with the most important question accompanying them: Whatever comes next, will it be an independent public media outlet and a beacon for the free press in the style of the BBC, with all its faults? Or will it be simply a state media outlet, in the manner of Russia Today, Moscow’s sophisticated international television propaganda arm whose content is determined by aides serving at the whim of President Vladimir Putin?

Yoram Ronen hosts Israeli radio show in 1957. Image by Wikimedia

Since its founding in pre-state Palestine, IBA has been called both. In fact, it has, at various times, defined itself as both.

Founded as the radio station of the pre-state Zionist military organization the Haganah, the fledgling media operation was subsumed into the prime minister’s office as Kol Israel, or the Voice of Israel, after Israel declared independence in 1948. It operated straightforwardly then as a propaganda tool until 1965, when it was shifted to a broadcasting authority modeled on the BBC.

Not long after, IBA expanded to include a television station, Channel 1. The founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was adamantly opposed to television in the young state, believing it was an educational tool inferior to books and radio, said Rafi Mann, a historian of communications at Ariel University, in the West Bank. But in the mid-1960s, the Israeli press reported that Mizrahim — or Jews from Arab lands — were watching television from Syria and Lebanon. Concerned about the implications of this for the new Israeli culture, Ben-Gurion’s successor, Levi Eshkol, greenlighted Channel 1.

In the absence of other options, IBA’s TV and radio programs were widely consumed in the young Jewish state. IBA grew to offer programming in 14 languages, including Arabic, English and Amharic, spoken by Israel’s Ethiopian minority. But problems began for IBA in 1977, when the election of the right-wing Likud party ended 30 years of left-wing rule in Israel. IBA “was considered as a tool for the previous government,” said Oren Persico, a journalist with the Seventh Eye, a site reporting on the Israeli media.

IBA’s structure left it vulnerable to government influence. The government appointed the board as well as the senior management positions in charge of news, radio and television. In recent years, the Likud government, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has placed right-wing appointees to helm IBA. Amir Gilat, once a Netanyahu spokesman, was made chairman of IBA in 2010, a position he no longer holds.

The pressure sometimes trickled down into the newsroom. In 2012, the popular radio host Keren Neubach was asked to co-host with a right-wing counterpart in order to balance her perceived left-wing bias. Her station, Voice of Israel, pushed back, and Neubach continued to helm the program alone.

According to Eran Mor-Cicurel, the foreign news editor at IBA’s radio networks, whether right or wrong, Israel’s Likud government still perceives IBA as a Labor Party, or left-of-center, entity. He believes that’s why IBA is on the chopping block today.

“I think our closure is part of the government attempts to break this so-called, so-perceived left-leaning political elite,” he said.

Yet pressure on IBA is not only political; it’s economic. In the 1990s, the Knesset ended IBA’s monopoly of Israeli radio and television, facilitating a flood of new TV and radio channels. With so many new programs competing for Israeli eyes and ears, IBA couldn’t keep up. IBA’s 1,200 employees were represented by more than a dozen unions, which hampered the operation’s ability to report the news as quickly and efficiently as its commercial counterparts. In this new scenario, IBA’s ratings plummeted quickly.

Yet at the same time, IBA maintained relative independence, with occasional bold programming. An IBA channel ran “The Gatekeepers,” a documentary featuring former heads of Israel’s security service speaking frankly about Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank.

For its funding, IBA depended on an annual fee from the public. Israeli citizens with televisions had to pay this, regardless of whether they were watching the public broadcast channel — and fewer and fewer of them were. IBA sometimes resorted to outrageous methods to collect the hated fee, hiring lawyers to sue people who shirked it, or even setting up roadblocks to stop drivers and ask them if they paid it, Persico said.

Meanwhile, the government convened committee after committee to decide IBA’s fate. In 2014 lthe Knesset voted to close IBA and replace it with an agency that would operate more slimly and, in principle, without political interference. Since the fee was canceled in late 2014, IBA has been slowly sapped of its resources, and hundreds of employees have left.

Now, public broadcasting in Israel is in limbo as IBA prepares to close and as its replacement opens. The process is akin to “replac[ing] an engine while the car is still driving,” said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, head of the media reform project at the Israel Democracy Institute.

According to Shwartz Altshuler, the legislation that created the new authority — which she helped craft — has several promising aspects. Most important, the government will not directly choose the new entity’s senior managers, as it does now at IBA, though it will still approve the board of directors, giving it indirect influence. The legislation mandates that programming cater to Jews, Arabs, the elderly and the young. A quarter of its employees will come from the old IBA.

But there are also reasons for concern, Shwartz Altshuler said. While IBA’s numerous unions were cumbersome, they also protected the workers there. The new agency won’t be unionized at all, at least not in the beginning. Since there is no public fee, the government will fund the new authority. The legislation is structured so as to protect against government efforts to slash funding if officials don’t agree with the programming. But it’s not foolproof.

“If politicians want to get involved, they will find ways to do that,” Shwartz Altshuler said.

This is what worries Idele Ross, a reporter at IBA’s English radio station for 38 years who retired two years ago. “What scares the bejesus out of me [is] that public radio and public television are going to become state radio and state television, managed by a group of people who are political appointments,” she said.

Meanwhile, details about what the new authority will look like in practice remain scarce. Eldad Koblen, head of the new authority, declined an interview with the Forward.

IBA’s uncertain future only adds to the rocky state of the free press in Israel today, as it is increasingly buffeted by commercial and political forces. The pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom, funded by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, changed the media market in Israel by flooding the country with free newspapers and lowering advertising rates. Israel Hayom has eclipsed Yediot Aharonot, which was once the daily newspaper with the largest circulation. Maariv, once the second-largest daily newspaper, is a shell of its former self. Walla, a popular Israeli news site, has been pressured to give favorable coverage to Netanyahu, a Haaretz investigation found. The prime minister is close with Israeli businessman Shaul Elovitch, who controls the company that owns Walla.

When IBA’s replacement opens, it could be a strong example for the free press in Israel — or another weak outlet.

“The media landscape is in such bad shape now, both in terms of lack of viable business models and with such high political influence,” Shwartz Altshuler said.

The hope, she said, is that IBA’s replacement will be a “pillar of excellence for the whole industry.”

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at [email protected] or on Twitter, @NaomiZeveloff

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