These days, Israeli media outlets are totally preoccupied with themselves — or, more precisely, with a bevy of officially driven initiatives designed to alter their status and constrain their autonomy. Multiple economic, personal, political, sectarian and public interests are at stake: so much so, that even the most avid consumer is at a loss to grasp the details of proposed policies, let alone assess their implications. This is exactly what Israel’s ultimate media commissar, Prime Minister and Minister of Communications Benjamin Netanyahu, wants. By sowing confusion in this critical and extremely adversarial market, he stands to gain even more control over the scope, content, and tone of public discourse in the country.
Just in the last two weeks, Israelis have been inundated by a plethora of media-related measures. The most obvious is the decision to postpone (or is it bury?) the planned opening of the newly established Israel Broadcasting Corporation slated to replace the sprawling and archaic Israel Broadcasting Authority on October 1st. In effect, this delay leaves hundreds of workers in limbo, could cost many millions of shekels and might further endanger professional journalism in the country.
At the same time, the Prime Minister (forced to recuse himself from dealing directly with this matter by the Attorney General) through his political associates has sought to institute a series of changes in the Knesset network, Channel 99. Besides setting new regulations limiting criticism of the legislature and granting regulatory power to a political appointee, plans are afoot to allow competition for ownership of the channel to any news-producing outlet, thereby opening the door for a possible takeover by Netanyahu’s close ally, media magnate Shaul Elovitch. Behind the scenes, the Prime Minister’s Office was also instrumental in a failed effort to pass a bill prohibiting the publication of promotional content in the press (stymied at the last moment by his ultra-Orthodox partners wary that such a law, aimed primarily at his personal nemesis, Yediot Aharonot, would adversely affect the income of their own newspapers).
These moves are, however, just a small sampling of many official machinations in what is a shifting and sprawling media market in which growing uncertainty actually enhances the Prime Minister’s direct control (the coalition agreements contain a clause compelling all partners to support Netanyahu on media matters). These include, under the guise of expanding diversity, tampering with the makeup and concessions of the leading commercial Channel 2, bringing in new competitors without regulatory constraints (especially cable channels HOT and Yes), allowing the Jewish Legacy Channel 20 to broadcast general news, appointing a political lackey to chair the second commercial channel (Channel 10), further propping up sympathetic outlets (The Jerusalem Post and Ma’ariv group, as well as the largest circulation daily, Sheldon Adelson’s freebie, Israel Hayom) and centralizing oversight over all commercial networks.
The present government’s intrusion into print and digital outlets also involves growing forays into substance. The most obvious example is Minister of Culture Miri Regev’s demand to investigate the airing of a program on Palestinian Poet Mahmoud Darwish in the context of a “University on the Air” lecture on the IDF radio, Galei Zahal, leading to a reprimand of the commander of the station, Yaron Dekel, delivered by the newly installed Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman. These cabinet ministers have also played a key role, along with some of their cohorts, in calling for the dismantling of this venerable — albeit anomalous — broadcasting unit. The coalition in its entirety has instituted steps, still to be fully defined, to enforce increased regulation of the social media — especially Facebook and Twitter.
In Israel’s bubbling media environment, it is not always easy to identify vying interests or to differentiate between competing actors and motives. But the constant burrowing in media-related affairs is indicative of the heightened importance attributed to subjugation of the press in all its contemporary forms. When the manner in which events are presented, the images associated with them, and the feelings they evoke are oftentimes as (if not more) important than the policies that brought them about, holding the reins of information dissemination becomes essential to maintaining power, silencing detractors and enfeebling opponents.
There is virtually no boundary today between complex political realities and how they are depicted. Without safeguards on the independence of the media, it can serve as the long arm of those in power in a number of ways. First, the press (in both its electronic and print versions) not only presents facts, it frames what is important and what can usefully be ignored in this era of information overflow. For example, anyone perusing the mainstream press in Israel may be hard-pressed to follow occurrences beyond the Green Line or keep up-to-date on changes in the Middle East. The more centralized and/or subservient the sources of information, the more malleable they become.
Second, through commentary and op-eds, the media guides readers and viewers on how to interpret currents events and how to think about emerging processes. The reiteration of similar ideas in a variety of forms has been, for years, an important instrument of subtle as well as direct thought control, which can only be countered by guaranteeing the existence of a vibrant and pluralistic marketplace of ideas. Thus, for years the Israeli public was schooled to see Iran as its most important strategic threat, even though experts tried in vain to argue against viewing geostrategic concerns through such a narrow and opaque lens. Today, incitement has been elevated to a similar pedestal, obviating the need to explore other causes for the latest surge of indiscriminate violence and exploring concrete avenues for its reduction.
Third, manipulation of the media enhances the ability to convey images which press home particular positions and attitudes. The constant repetition of reservations about the loyalty of the Arab citizens of Israel in the formal media — buttressed constantly by social networks — is a case in point (it is still difficult to forget Netanyahu’s election-day appeal to Likud supporters to go out and vote, since the “Arabs are going to the polls in droves on buses funded by left-wing organizations”). The construction and dissemination of such stereotypes now extends to asylum-seekers, to human rights organizations, to certain political parties and, in a mutually deleterious manner, to various ethnic groups in Israeli society. The consolidation of these images necessarily affects not only how people see each other, but also how they feel. From here it is a very short step indeed to societal confrontation and even outright discord.
Finally, since public discourse is shaped largely through the media, the greater its concentration in the hands of the few, the more, too, the ability to mold public discourse. Part of this process is advanced through the selection and repetition of key words and the dismissal of others (“Judea and Samaria” have replaced the “occupied territories” or the “West Bank”; “infiltrators” substitutes for “refugees”; the “Land of Israel” has become a synonym for the “State of Israel”; and “the people” are in, while “citizens” are out). Part is achieved via the careful delineation of what is permissible and what is not. Criticizing the IDF is still considered beyond the pale (notably when conducted by civil rights groups); so, too, is disagreeing with official policies, especially if aired abroad. On the other hand, immense tolerance is exhibited for demands to pray on the Temple Mount or to sidetrack Gay Pride parades in some cities. By holding sway over the media, it is possible to demarcate the contours of permissible discourse, the narratives that inform it and the substance it may contain. Departure from these boundaries perforce invites intimidation, delegitimization and even active ostracism.
Media therefore does matter, more than those impatient with the particulars of various attempts to regulate it like to admit. Its structure and ownership patterns are a sure guide to the openness and diversity of the marketplace of ideas in any given country. That is why the free flow of information and opinion is one of the most significant signposts of robust democracies. The constant meddling in Israel’s boisterous information networks and ongoing efforts to dominate their outputs not only defy productive debate, they prevent innovation and are consequently antithetical to Israel’s essential well-being.