Walla tilted its coverage in favor of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “brutally and drastically,” the internet news site’s former editor in chief said Tuesday.
Aviram Elad was testifying for a second day in Netanyahu’s bribery trial.
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Elad, who headed Walla’s news desk when pressure to tilt the coverage was at its height, told the Jerusalem District Court that he quit in 2014 because he didn’t want “to be part of this.” When Walla asked him to return as editor in chief in 2016, he said, he conditioned it on the tilted coverage ending. His contract even included a clause granting him a year’s salary in the event he left again due to “unprofessional intervention.”
But in his first month on the job, in November 2016, he was already fighting with CEO Ilan Yeshua over whether to report on suspected corruption in the purchase of new submarines. After television reporter Raviv Drucker broke the story, Elad ordered a follow-up, because “there’s no professional way not to address the submarine case.”
Yeshua initially approved the follow-up, Elad said, “but later wrote me, ‘Stop work, don’t publish anything. It’s not possible right now.’”
“I said this was against everything we’d agreed on,” recalled Elad, who is now the CEO of Channel 13 television’s news company. “He said, ‘I know what I told you, but that’s the situation,’ and there was no choice – that this is a sensitive time because there are regulatory decisions that are supposed to be made about the Bezeq group,” referring to the Israeli telecommunications firm that owns Walla.
Netanyahu was charged with giving regulatory favors to Bezeq during his tenure as communications minister, in exchange for favorable coverage from Walla. Bezeq’s then-owner, Shaul Elovitch, is also charged in the case, as is his wife, Iris.
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Despite Yeshua’s order, Elad reported on the submarine story the next day. “Immediately after it was published, Ilan told me, ‘You created a serious mess. You’re finished with the Netanyahu family, because you also wrote an op-ed about the [Iranian] nuclear program that criticized them.’”
Yeshua also said “that he was protecting me from being fired,” Elad added.
Elad led the follow-up with attorney Gonen Ben Itzhak’s request that the attorney general investigate the corruption suspicions. Afterward, Yeshua asked him how well he knew Ben Itzhak, since both men were consultants for the television series “Fauda.” Elad said their acquaintance was superficial.
Yeshua’s question convinced him that “somebody, apparently from Netanyahu’s circle,” was digging for dirt on him. “I was shocked. It bothered me a lot that they were doing background checks like these,” Elad added.
But Elovitch’s lawyer, Jacques Chen, noted that both men’s role in “Fauda” was public knowledge.
During his first weeks as editor in chief, Elad said, Yeshua flooded him with requests to downplay negative articles about Netanyahu and his family and post positive articles about them, with plenty of pictures. Moreover, he said, when he sent articles to Yeshua for review, he often felt as if someone else was actually going over them.
“I thought this was interference that shouldn’t happen in a journalism workplace, certainly not in the form of orders from someone who isn’t a journalist,” Elad said. “Everything connected to Netanyahu went to him for approval.”
While he also received coverage requests about other politicians, Elad added, they were much less frequent and were merely “an attempt to persuade ... rather than an order.”
Asked by prosecutor Judith Tirosh whether Yeshua ever told him where the orders came from, Elad replied, “Ilan said clearly that Elovitch and Bezeq are dependent on regulatory decisions regarding Yes,” a Bezeq subsidiary, “and that they are supposed to be made now. Therefore, it’s very important that Walla flatter and fall in line and be subject to the authority of the prime minister and his family. He said there are billions on the table here.”
On another occasion, Elad said, Yeshua told him that “there’s a bribery relationship between Netanyahu and the website.”
Elovitch and his wife were also “deeply and unnaturally” involved in appointments at Walla, Elad said, adding that Yeshua once told him he “won’t get the prime minister’s approval” to hire a certain reporter.
By the end of that November, Elad said, he had told Yeshua he would resign again unless things changed soon. Then, “one day in December he came in and said, ‘It’s over, there won’t be any more intervention by the Netanyahu family. From now on, do what you want.’”
From then on, he said, he no longer needed advance clearance for coverage of the Netanyahus, “and we were able to work completely freely.”
Yeshua subsequently tried a few times to tilt coverage in favor of then-Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, arguing that “it’s important for the group and if we don’t, Walla will be hurt by regulatory decisions,” Elad said. But the editor refused to obey, and Yeshua didn’t fire him.
Elad said he was happy when he was summoned for questioning in this case in 2018. “I felt like a crime victim at that stage,” he said. “They forced us for a long time to do things that violated our journalistic conscience. There was systematic tilting [of the coverage] and directives to prepare articles favorable to the Netanyahu family.”
Under cross-examination, Yeshua said that all his orders to tilt the coverage came from Yeshua.
Netanyahu attorney Boaz Ben Zur said Elad’s testimony that Sara Netanyahu had screamed at Yeshua contradicted Yeshua’s testimony that he had never spoken with her. Ben Zur suggested that Yeshua might have made the story up to impress or “brainwash” the editor.
“I worked with him for six years, and he never lied to me,” Elad replied.
Ben Zur also asked whether Elad ever used his journalistic judgment about how much prominence to give articles about Netanyahu, and if so, whether this didn’t show that he was independent. Elad replied that even if he sometimes agreed that a certain request had journalistic merit, the fact remained that Yeshua made it, thereby “inserting alien interests that weren’t journalistic. That’s interference.”