Sunday, June 7, 2015

Netanyahu Moves Against The Media

Benjamin Netanyahu dissolved his government last November to remove two obstacles. The first, much reported beyond Israel, was opposition by centrists within his government, including Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, to the “Jewish nation” bill, which would have constrained the Supreme Court’s ability to protect Arab citizens’ rights. The second—less noticed but perhaps more consequential—was a bill advanced in the Knesset to prohibit any major newspaper from being distributed for free. The obvious target of the legislation was Sheldon Adelson’s Israel Hayom, a free tabloid that’s become Israel’s most widely circulated newspaper. Adelson was reported to have lost as much as three million dollars a month on it—simply, it seems, to boost Netanyahu and his Likud Party. The day it became clear that the newspaper bill, supported by Lapid and Livni, would get a Knesset majority, Netanyahu fired his dissident ministers and called for new elections. Netanyahu won reĆ«lection, and the legislation’s sponsors lost their leverage.

But the Prime Minister’s maneuvering for control of the news media did not end with the sinking of the bill. While forming his new government, he extracted written pledges from potential coalition partners not to vote against any legislative initiative or regulatory decision by the minister of communications, coyly implying that he might add the post to his responsibilities as Prime Minister—which he did. This role, and these pledges, position Netanyahu to regulate cellular service and Internet providers, license private broadcast channels, and influence the management of public television and radio. His defense of Israel Hayom’s supremacy in print is trifling compared with his growing power to control greater Israel’s airwaves. “Netanyahu is like a pianist who’s gathered all the keys for a keyboard,” Yaron Ezrahi, a Hebrew University political scientist who founded The Seventh Eye, an Israeli press-criticism magazine, told me. “Do we expect him not to play?”

Netanyahu’s most brazen decision as minister of communications has been the firing of the ministry’s director-general, Avi Berger, who had been preparing to reform the broadband market. The formerly government-owned telecommunications company Bezeq provides about two-thirds of home Internet access and almost all home Internet connections. Berger’s planned reform would have forced Bezeq to license its wired infrastructure to new entrants, bringing down the cost of Web access, much the way forcing Israel’s cell-phone cartel to share cellular infrastructure radically lowered the cost of mobile access. Berger also wanted all new companies to gain the right to bundle “last-mile” wiring with Internet service; Israeli customers now pay Bezeq to connect their modem to the fibre network, and also pay an Internet Service Provider, mostly likely Bezeq International, for access to the Web. Connectivity costs are about double what they are in the United States. Bezeq shareholders are not complaining. Netanyahu announced that he intends to replace Berger with Shlomo Filber, a close ally and a former chairman of the settlers’ council in the occupied territories. Broadband markets and neo-Zionist ideology may seem unrelated, but they are not. Berger’s firing was a signal that regulatory power can be used to engender broadcasting more or less friendly to Likud’s policies, not by directly intimidating journalists but by shaping ambient pressures on owners and managers of the media companies.

Not surprisingly, Netanyahu’s move against Berger prompted an immediate spike in Bezeq’s share price; Netanyahu clearly meant to put Bezeq’s owners in his debt, or at least emphasize the value of being in his orbit. Not coincidentally, the Bezeq-owned Internet company Walla! has been rumored for months to be planning a twenty-four-hour cable news channel, bundled into Bezeq’s satellite-television provider Yes, and streamed and promoted over Bezeq infrastructure. “Berger’s sudden dismissal was immediately beneficial for Bezeq, of which Walla! is a subsidiary,” Erel Margalit, a Labor Knesset member and the founder of Jerusalem Venture Partners, which has launched various media companies, complained. For Bezeq, Walla!, and its prospective cable news channel, “the conflict of interest is self-evident.”

Read on at The New Yorker