A political ploy to curb free speech

If the chairman of Israel’s Central Elections Committee doesn’t rule against Yair Lapid’s appalling attempt to silence his critics by going after “Channel 14,” let there be hell to pay for the left at the ballot box.

Israel's Channel 14 program "The Patriots," hosted by Yinon Magal. (center). Source: Facebook.
Israel's Channel 14 program "The Patriots," hosted by Yinon Magal. (center). Source: Facebook.
Ruthie Blum. Credit: Courtesy.
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum, an author and award-winning columnist, is a former adviser at the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In an act of chutzpah characteristic of the Israeli left, Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party has petitioned the Central Elections Committee (CEC) to declare Channel 14 a “propaganda platform” for Likud, headed by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

According to the petition, submitted to the CEC on Wednesday by Economy and Industry Minister Orna Barbivai and Energy Minister Karine Elharrar, the right-wing news outlet, owned by billionaire Yitzchak Mirilashvili, “is a real threat to the basic principles” of Israeli elections, as it is “fully harnessed in favor of a candidate and a party, without balance and contrary to every standard of reasonableness, fairness and common sense.”

Barbivai claimed that the move isn’t intended to “influence the content of the broadcasts,” but to demand transparency—to report to the public that the “content constitutes election propaganda.”

Elharrar accused the outlet of “posing as a news channel [but whose] entire purpose is improper propaganda” for Netanyahu.

“Allowing the channel to continue deceiving the public is a real danger to the press in Israel and to democracy as a whole,” she said.

Aside from being an obvious political ploy, the petition—like the comments of the two members of the Lapid-led interim government who issued it on behalf of their party leader—is a farce. For one thing, Channel 14 is completely transparent about its slant.

Nor does it “pose” as a news outlet; its reportage is indistinguishable from that of other channels, other than where lineup and emphasis is concerned. And its commentators and guest panelists, while mostly on the right, include members of the opposite camp.

The problem is that most of those on the left who are invited to be interviewed refuse to do so, including Lapid himself.

Secondly, the other three networks—Kan 11 News, Channel 12 and Channel 13—are also heavily biased. With the exception of a handful of right-wing analysts, they are openly anti-Netanyahu and his bloc. Channel 14 is the only one that provides viewers with a completely different viewpoint from that of the chattering classes on the burning issues of the hour.

Furthermore, the assertion that the petition isn’t taking aim at the “content of the broadcasts” is disingenuous, at best.

In its response to the travesty, the outlet recounted, “Last month, a senior official sent a message to the channel’s management stating that if there is no change in the broadcast schedule that includes a reduction in the appearances of various presenters and commentators, legal proceedings will be taken that will lead to the closing of the channel. Yesh Atid knows very well that declaring Channel 14 a political entity will result in its license being revoked and in the channel’s being closed, even before the [Nov. 1 Knesset] elections.”

Not coincidentally, among the examples cited in the Yesh Atid petition was a regular segment on the nightly program “The Patriots,” which points out and pokes fun at Lapid’s flip-flopping. The idea that calling out a politician for inconsistencies constitutes “inappropriate propaganda” is beyond ludicrous.

Equally jaw-dropping is the timing of the petition, a day after Rosh Hashanah. On the eve of the Jewish New Year, lengthy puff pieces about and interviews with Lapid were featured on the cover of every newspaper’s magazine section.

This was a mere three days after Lapid’s Sept. 22 speech at the United Nations General Assembly aired in full on each network and was praised to the skies by every Israeli print and broadcast vehicle in the country. Nothing gets the left’s juices flowing more than a revival of the dead “two-state solution” mantra, after all—particularly in the midst of a Palestinian terror wave that has Israeli security forces working overtime to keep in in check during the rest of the high holidays.

Meanwhile, back in Israel on the night before Lapid’s UNGA performance in New York, Channel 12’s satire TV show “Eretz Nehederet” outdid itself in anti-Netanyahu-camp vilification. A skit lampooning Otzma Yehudit MK Itamar Ben-Gvir (who merged with the Religious Zionist Party, led by MK Betzalel Smotrich) made a not-so-veiled comparison of the politician to Adolf Hitler.

Though there was no explicit mention of the Nazis, the song-and-dance routine was a play on the musical number “Springtime for Hitler” from Mel Brook’s 1967 movie, “The Producers.”

This, at least, was supposed to be funny. But the blatant anti-Netanyahu proclivities of that and the other main channels’ “serious” programs are no laughing matter.

The advent of Channel 14, which started out in the summer of 2014 as Channel 20 and rebranded last November, was refreshing to audiences hungry for a different perspective. (On a personal note: I was once criticized for being “unattractive” when watching the news, due to my constant talking back to the screen in disgust.)

Being able to relax while consuming news and commentary has been a novel experience. It’s one that I don’t wish to be forced by political adversaries to forfeit.

Ironically, the free-speech debate that Yesh Atid’s petition has sparked may be just the advertising that the channel needs to generate interest among the many Israelis, even those with conservative politics, who’ve never tuned in to it. Hopefully, the chairman of the CEC, Supreme Court Justice Yitzhak Amit, will rule against Lapid’s appalling attempt to silence his critics. If he doesn’t, let there be hell to pay for the left at the ballot box.

Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ” 

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