Arutz-7 and the free marketplace of ideas in Israel
by Jonathan Rosenblum
October 30, 2003
The narrow legal issue decided by the Jerusalem Magistrates Court last week in the Arutz-7 case -- Did the station broadcast from within Israel? – is of far less interest than the question: Why does the Israeli government insist on maintaining a monopoly over radio news?
In 1997, Netanyahu government initially accepted the recommendations of the Peled Commission that Israel adopt an "open-skies" policy, which would basically allow any station that could pay the required licensing fee to broadcast. Modern digital technology makes it possible for up to 150 stations to broadcast simultaneously, yet less than one-tenth that number do so at present.
Despite the technical feasibility of implementing an "open-skies" policy, however, neither the Netanyahu government, nor subsequent governments of the Left or Right made any effort to implement the Peled Commission recommendations. The most that was done to free the airwaves was to permit several regional radio stations and a few niche stations, designed to appeal to particular population groups.
In the case of both the regional and niche stations, licenses were determined by government tender, not the ability to attract listeners. In effect, then, those licensees simply became additional monopolies in a particular market. Neither the regional stations nor niche stations, however, were permitted to broadcast news. Thus the monopoly of Israel Radio and Army Radio over news remained unchallenged.
The most immediate result of an "open-skies" policy would have been to permit Arutz-7 to broadcast legally. With its wide listener base, there can be no question of the station’s ability to pay any reasonable licensing fee or to attract enough advertising and contributions to remain economically viable.
The fear of Arutz-7 no doubt goes a long way to explaining why politicians of the Left (and many identified with the Right) have gone to such great lengths to ensure that the station be closed, a goal achieved, at least for the time being, by last week’s court ruling.
In battling against Arutz-7, left-wing politicians, however, have had to abandon liberalism’s traditional commitment to the free marketplace of ideas. Every regular listener to Arutz-7 recognizes that its "slant" on the news is considerably different from that heard on Israel Radio. In addition, the station broadcasts daily numerous news items that never find their way into the mainstream Israeli media.
Perhaps some of Arutz-7’s news items are wrong, and no doubt many of them are unpalatable to the Left, but surely pluralism and tolerance mean something other than just tolerance for those views with which one agrees. John Stuart Mills’ free marketplace of ideas can only function when a wide variety of ideas have access.
The convolutions of thought to which Left-wing opponents of Arutz-7 are regularly driven in their efforts to justify the station’s closure reflect a widespread failure in Israel to understand Mills’ theory. In no other democratic country do the cultural elites invest so much energy in attempting to suppress opinions with which they disagree and to protect monopoly status for their own ideas. Israel’s self-styled civil libertarians frequently manifest more concern that too much information might confuse the lower orders than with the public’s right to know.
Thus Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer, chairman of the Israeli Press Association, pronounced himself well-satisfied with the closure of Arutz-7. (This is the same man, incidentally, who once decried the bombing of the Voice of Palestine in Ramallah as an infringement on freedom of the press.)
Kremnitzer denied that there is any evidence of political bias in the news coverage of either Israel Radio or Army Radio. From that, he concluded, there is no reason to bemoan the shutting down of Arutz-7. It was left to interviewer Chaim Zisovitch to point out to Kremnitzer that it is the radio listeners, not he, who should determine whether the coverage of a particular station is balanced or not.
Clearly the hundreds of thousands of regular listeners of Arutz-7 either feel that their views are not adequately represented on Israel Radio or Army Radio, or at least view Arutz-7 as providing a perspective on events to which they wish to be exposed prior to making up their own minds.
Kremnitzer’s remarks are reminiscent of former Meretz leader Yossi Sarid’s frequently expressed opposition to religious radio stations on the grounds that they are "sectoral." What Sarid could never understand was that in the eyes of much of the public Israel Radio and Army Radio are themselves sectoral stations, and that the sector whose views they reflect happens to be the cultural elite to which Sarid belongs. Just as Karl Marx viewed the class interests of the proletariat as synonymous with the interests of mankind in general, so Sarid considers Meretz supporters a form of universal class.
In Israel cries of "free speech" and "freedom of thought" often mask an attempt to protect a monopoly on indoctrination. A few years ago, for instance, criticism of the introduction of certain ninth grade history texts was met with charges that "democracy, freedom of thought, and freedom of expression" were all under assault.
At issue, however, was never the right of the authors of those texts to write or publish whatever they wanted, but rather whether particular controversial historical interpretations should prevail over others in the Israeli school system, in which the consumers – i.e., students – are a captive audience.
Similarly, far-fetched was Shulamit Aloni’s charge that the refusal to allow the Batsheva Dance Troupe – which was, then, receiving a $1.5 million annual subsidy from the government – to perform a highly irreverent dance performance at the 50th Independence Day celebrations constituted government censorship. The free marketplace of ideas does not require the government to actively subsidize performances that will be highly offensive to large segments of the population, particularly at events designed to reinforce feelings of national unity. Yet that is what Aloni demanded.
In a society as highly polarized as our own, the task of government is to ensure that no group feels itself shut out of the marketplace of ideas. Nothing gives rise to greater bitterness and societal tension than the feeling of a large segment of the population that it has been silenced.
That is why it is stain on Israeli democracy that Arutz-7 ever had to pretend that it was broadcasting only outside of Israeli territorial waters in the first place.
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