Israel's war of words on radio


Crackdown: Not only has the government raided nine illegal stations in recent months, but it has also scrutinized public language.


JERUSALEM -- When pirate radio stations played havoc with air traffic at Ben Gurion International Airport last month, it took the word of a prominent rabbi to silence them.

Within days, the illegal stations were back on the air, broadcasting from hide-outs in Jerusalem and around the country. Their rabbi had given them the nod after deciding that the broadcasts were not responsible for the interference.

For years, Israel's pirate stations have managed to operate outside the law because of their political patrons. But the airport interference raised the stakes in this cat-and-mouse game in which some stations reportedly rely on police insiders to dodge the cops.

Police in Jerusalem raided three stations last week -- Radio Blue and White, Voice of the East and Radio West -- after the government communications ministry pinpointed the source of their broadcasts in an office basement and two rented apartments. Equipment was confiscated.

"It's very simple," says Shmuel Ben Ruby, a police spokesman. "They don't need special equipment a compact disc player, transmission equipment."

The latest raids brought to nine the number of illegal stations -- most of them religious -- shut down over the past three months.

About 150 unlicensed stations broadcast clandestinely in Israel. Many offer alternative or ethnic music, but about a third are ideological in nature. Perhaps a dozen of these are associated with conservative religious groups that deny the authority of Israel's Supreme Court or champion the nationalist settler movement.

The unlicensed stations have served the needs of various political interests, including the outgoing prime minister and lawmakers from the settler movement and from Shas, the influential political party of ultra-Orthodox Jews of North Africa and Arab countries.

Trailing in the polls before the May 17 election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flouted a legal prohibition against election-day broadcasts by giving an interview to a group of illegal, Shas-affiliated stations.

The illegality of the stations isn't the main issue. The stridence of the ideological broadcasts has alarmed public-interest groups.

Although Israel has a culture of biting political debate, public language has been more closely scrutinized since the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. He was shot by a Jewish religious student in the wake of an acrimonious campaign against the peace process in which right-wing groups portrayed the Israeli leader in a Nazi uniform and called him a traitor.

"Before the assassination, nobody believed words have such power," says Talya Sasson, an Israeli prosecutor who heads a committee on incitement cases. "After the assassination, we understood we have to deal very seriously with words."

An early victim of the crackdown on words is Boaz Arnon, a broadcaster for Kol Haneshama (Voice of the Spirit) radio, whose indictment on charges of incitement against Israel's Supreme Court justices has been recommended by the police.

Shas supporters have waged a vitriolic campaign against the judiciary since the conviction of the party's leader, Aryeh Deri, on corruption charges. Arnon called on ultra-Orthodox Jews to "unsheath 1,000 knives. God will murder and kill all the justices of the Supreme Court. If we need to be slaughtered, we will be slaughtered. If we need to slaughter, we will slaughter."

Israel's incitement law predates the country's founding in 1948. It originated during the British mandate period and refers to rebellions against King George. But according to Yizhar Be'er, executive director of a watchdog group that monitors pirate broadcasts, the law is being broadly interpreted to cover statements by an individual, publication or broadcast that are racist or encourage violent acts.

Actual violence does not have to be the outcome of acts or statements deemed to be inciting, according to Zeev Segal, a law professor at Tel Aviv University.

For example, a Jewish man was sentenced to five years in prison for sedition for plotting to throw a pig's head onto an Islamic holy site on a religious holiday. His plan was thwarted, but he was convicted nonetheless.

Authorities also use other laws to control incitement. For example, a Jewish woman was convicted of offending religious and traditional sentiments for distributing a leaflet depicting a pig with the Koran in its mouth.

The issue of the pirate radio stations is not a question of freedom of speech, says Be'er. "What does 150 pirate stations mean? It means there is an alternative media system outside the law and against the law," he says. "Why not establish an alternative police force?"

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