Prime Minister's salve to troubled Ch. 10 met with disbelief

Tel Aviv– Just in the nick of time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week ordered his government to look for a way to save Channel 10, which is set to shutter Jan. 27 due to debts that have grown to NIS 60 million ($15.8 million).

The move was looked on with a jaundiced eye by his fiercest detractors, who insist the channel’s closure is part of a personal vendetta on Netanyahu’s part.

Channel 10 — set up in 2002 by industrialist Yossi Meiman; Estee Lauder cosmetics heir and owner of Central European Media Enterprises Ronald Lauder; and producer Arnon Milchan — is one of only two independent stations in Israel. Its closure would mean the Hebrew-language incarnations of such hits as “Beauty and the Geek,” “Survivor,” and “The Real Housewives” would go dark, and it would also give rival Channel 2, jointly run by media companies Reshet and Keshet, a monopoly over evening news coverage.

The station has been bogged down with financial troubles since its launch, and its founders seem unwilling or unable to continue bailing it out. Meiman made most of his money from gas deals with Egypt. But the pipeline between the two countries has been blown up 10 times and, since last year’s uprising, he’s gone deeply into debt.

Lauder reportedly threatened to stop financing Channel 10 in September, although it’s not known whether he made good on that.

Options for saving the channel have been discussed: the government could forgive the debt completely; the station could renegotiate its debt payment plan. A third solution, recently proposed in the Israeli parliament but not yet voted on, would allow Channel 10 not to pay the public agency that oversees commercial webs what it owes for Israeli-produced programming.

However, Channel 10 employees and Netanyahu’s opponents say the looming closure is not about money, but rather an attempt by the prime minister and his right-wing coalition to quash any form of criticism, even at the expense of democracy.

“Netanyahu wants Channel 10 to close,” says a high-level performer on Channel 10, who asked that his name be withheld in hopes of keeping his job should the stationed be saved. “It has nothing to do with money; he wants to minimize any negative coverage of his work.”

It’s no secret the prime minister is unhappy with Channel 10. He is suing the station and its reporter, Raviv Drucker, over an investigative report on foreign donors’ funding of his trips abroad.

But when a parliamentary committee led by Netanyahu’s coalition nixed a one-year grace period for the channel, his critics cried foul. That move, coupled with a slew of “anti-democracy” laws, which include a ban on calls to boycott Israel or its West Bank settlements, has led some to declare the government is mounting an attack on democracy.

At several major intersections across Israel, a new billboard has cropped up: In large letters, next to a photo of the prime minister, is the list of Netanyahu’s perceived affronts to Israeli freedoms. Channel 10′s imminent closure heads the list, followed by the names of several controversial laws.

Others, however, say the conspiracy theories are overblown. “Yes, Netanyahu happens to be suing Channel 10, but if the same thing had happened on Channel 2, he would have sued Channel 2 as well,” says Lahav Harkov, Knesset reporter for the Jerusalem Post. “It happens to be that Channel 10 is closing at the same time that there are bills that are changing the courts … so it’s convenient for the opposition to lump them all together, blame Netanyahu for all of it and say, ‘democracy is dying.’ But each of those issues has a … background, and I just don’t think it’s fair to lump them all together. Most of them aren’t even connected.”

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