Israeli TV channel alleges anti-media campaign

JERUSALEM (AP) — A TV channel known for aggressive investigative reporting is on the verge of being shut down after Israeli lawmakers rejected a request to defer its crippling debts — a move critics see as the latest salvo in a campaign to muzzle the press, harass liberal groups and make courts friendlier to the governing nationalists.

Israel’s top journalists recently gathered for a conference to warn of what they called an anti-media blitz by the hard-line government. The action has included political appointments to Israel’s public broadcasting system, the sidelining of prominent critics, and anti-libel legislation that could curtail investigative reporters.

In this atmosphere, Channel 10, one of Israel’s two commercial TV stations, is on the verge of going out of business and leaving the country with only one channel that has an independent news operation.

Channel 10 has struggled financially in its 10 years on the air, racking up losses in excess of $340 million. With its primary owners recently cutting back funding, the station asked parliament to grant it a one-year extension on an $11 million royalty bill owed to the state by Dec. 31 while shareholders try to raise cash.

Israel’s parliamentary finance committee this week rejected the pleas, with all members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition voting against an extension.

The station says it will be forced to shut down, leaving rival Channel 2 as Israel’s only privately owned broadcast channel. Channel 10 had trouble gaining market share from the start partly because it was not initially allowed to broadcast over standard airwaves and was restricted to satellite and cable.

Netanyahu has not spoken publicly on the matter. His allies say the decision was purely financial.

“The finance committee is not a rescue fund,” said Carmel Shama Hacohen, the committee chair. “We are interested in the viewers having more than one news channel, but a Channel 10 that needs favors is not a channel we are interested in.”

The TV station is owned by Israeli magnate Yossi Maiman, Israeli Hollywood film producer Arnon Milchan and U.S. billionaire Ron Lauder, whose once close ties with Netanyahu have since cooled. The men, tired of pumping cash into a money-losing venture, have fretted over the government’s unwillingness to work with them.

But station executives, along with commentators in the media, believe the motivations run much deeper. They say the government, which has deferred debts for other struggling companies, is using a technicality to eliminate a source of criticism.

Veteran journalist Motti Kirshenbaum said when he saw Shama Hacohen and other lawmakers from the governing Likud Party celebrating after the committee vote, he become convinced that ulterior motives were in play.

“This is a vindictive political maneuver,” said Kirshenbaum, who hosts a popular show on Channel 10. “The channel is struggling and they saw an opportunity to stick it to us.”

In recent months, the station’s news division has run several investigative pieces that were highly embarrassing to the prime minister.

Raviv Drucker, the channel’s leading political reporter, broke a story in March on Netanyahu and his wife’s overseas travel expenses in the 10 years between his first and second terms as prime minister. The report, which alleged Netanyahu took expensive flights, hotels and restaurant meals paid for by wealthy associates, led to a state comptroller’s investigation into the matter. Netanyahu denied the allegations and filed a libel suit against Drucker that is still pending.

Channel 10 said officials in Netanyahu’s office recently hinted the government would ease up on the station’s debt if it fired Drucker. The prime minister’s office said that accusation was “baseless.”

Netanyahu’s top coalition partner, the Yisrael Beiteinu Party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is still angry at the channel for showing video of one of its top ministers entering the home of his alleged mistress and emerging the following morning.

The station’s news chief resigned in September after he was forced to apologize for a report critical of U.S. casino mogul Sheldon Adelson — a close Netanyahu associate who had also threatened to sue. Adelson owns the country’s leading free daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, which is sympathetic to the prime minister. Unlike TV stations, newspapers owe the state no royalties.

Yuval Karniel, a law and communications expert at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a college near Tel Aviv, said the apology to Adelson was a key turning point because it exposed Channel 10’s vulnerability and allowed politicians to pounce.

“There is no doubt that the politicians identify a moment in which they can weaken the media and let them know who’s the boss,” he said.

Karniel expects a compromise will be found to save the channel, which employs about 550 people, but said it could come at the expense of toning down its critical voice.

“The fact that politicians are battling against the free media on all fronts, trying to weaken it and deter it from criticism — that is a real danger to democracy,” he said.

The press battle comes as bills are advancing under Netanyahu’s government that critics charge are meant to stifle dissent and pluralism.

Among the bills are those that would give parliament more influence over choosing Supreme Court justices and dramatically limit foreign funding of non-governmental organizations, which would largely affect dovish groups.

Netanyahu’s opponents accuse him of acting out of narrow personal interests and limiting press freedom. The government has recently taken other steps to tighten its grip on public broadcasting as well.

“Mr. Prime Minister, tell the truth about your approach to the media — you see it as an enemy and are trying to take it over,” opposition leader Tzipi Livni said in parliament last month. “You’ve cut Channel 10 off life support. Slowly, slowly you will (try to) take the broadcast waves away from thinking journalists and pass them on to parrots who will recite the announcements from your office.”

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