Sportscaster suspended for empathizing with whistleblower

On Saturday night, veteran broadcaster Yoram Arbel (one of Israel top sports show hosts and longtime host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire) made the following remark during an Israel-Latvia game. “An Israeli girl who’s done something horrible, even worse than that, has been sitting locked up at home for a year, under an order, of course. How does she pass her time? She loves watching football. So we’ll dedicate a part of this broadcast to her, because if someone loves football, they deserve this much. ”

Arbel was referring, of course, to Anat Kamm – the young journalist who, during her mandatory military service, leaked documents raising serious suspicions of war crimes and violations of Israeli law by her commander, Major General Yair Naveh, to Haaretz investigate journalist Uri Blau. Kamm has now been under a house arrest for a year and a half; a few months ago she was convicted and will almost certainly be sent to prison in the summer. Last week, the Justice Ministry announced it plans to indict Blau himself, raising new fears for an unprecedented crackdown on investigative journalism in Israel.

Kamm, who gave a landmark interview to Yedioth Ahronoth over the weekend – sadly, still not available in English – said that football helps her pass the time, and that during even as she was being convicted for “aggravated espionage,” she couldn’t stop thinking about a Liverpool-Derby game due to happen that same day. Arbel, a through and through fellow sports lover, apparently felt touched and decided to put in a good word for her; as Shlomo Mann makes clear in Israeli media journal 7th Eye, he also immediately clarified – again – that he was sypamthizing with Anat’s predicament, not with her actual act: A few minutes later Arbel told his listeners that “if my words were interpreted as support for what she’s done, I apologise.”

But despite his denounciation of Kamm’s original offence, and despite his apology – to borrow from Mann again, the last thing Arbel needs at 70 is to become a pariah – this morning Channel 10 suspended him with immediate effect.

Let’s make this clear: Channel 10 suspended a veteran sportscaster for voicing support not for an offence committed against state security – whistelblowing –  but for the whistleblower herself – a young woman who’s been effectively in prison for a year before she was even sentenced.  But dig this. Channel 10 suspended Arbel for 48 hours, which will end before his next scheduled broadcast this Tuesday.

Which means that a) The suspension is openly little more than bowing to a few dozen angry viewers b) it announced to these viewers it needs very little pressure to bow down to them c) The homage to their rage is so pitiful and cynical it will doubtlessly only produce more pressure. This has already begun; Israel’s main news site, YNET happily went to town on that one, stressing that despite public outrage, the suspension would have little effect on Arbel’s work. Rather incredibly, YNET also compared Arbel to Israeli Big Brother Producer Yoram Zak, who was suspended for a slightly different transgression:  A soundcheck in which he speculated about the prospect of putting his penis between the breasts of one of the contenders was inadvertently broadcasted.

The thesaurus provides a handsome cache of epithets to describe the Channel 10 leadership that decided on this move. But what’s truly disturbing it the social dynamic behind it: Anticipatory compliance. Channel 10 did not get a menacing phone call from a security official; the government did not move to cut off its funding; no death threats are known to have been received by the channel director families, and no serious moves towards a viewer or advertisement have been made. Rather, the channel anticipated that those who bully, threaten and yearn to censor would like to see Arbel humiliated – and independently, of its own cravenly volition, the channel rushed to please. This is much more dangerous than any official clampdown by the state.