News Site's CEO Only Intervened When It Came to Netanyahus, Senior Editor Says

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Michal Klein leaves court after testifying on Monday.
Michal Klein leaves court after testifying on Monday.Credit: Emil Salman

The former head of Walla’s news desk told a court on Monday that the news site’s CEO had ordered her to tilt coverage in favor of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“He used to tell me, ‘We need this, don’t wear me out,’” Michal Klein quoted Ilan Yeshua as saying during her testimony in Netanyahu’s bribery trial. She added that Yeshua didn’t intervene in other journalistic content on the site, but only in articles related to Netanyahu and his family.

Netanyahu is charged with giving regulatory relief to Walla’s parent company, Bezeq, in exchange for the tilted coverage.

Klein began her testimony to the Jerusalem District Court after the defense finished cross-examining Walla’s former editor-in-chief, Aviram Elad. Klein will be cross-examined on Tuesday.

Klein said that from the moment she became head of the news desk, Yeshua began asking her to tilt the coverage. “I understood from Ilan very quickly that everything connected to the Netanyahu family had to get his approval,” she added.

The Netanyahu family’s spokesman, Nir Hefetz, also began sending her press releases and pictures, usually about events attended by the prime minister’s wife, Sara. “Hefetz never asked me for anything, but two minutes later, I’d get the same releases from Ilan Yeshua, with very clear instructions about what to do with the material – where to post it, when and for how long,” Klein said.

“Items critical of the prime minister and those around him needed Yeshua’s approval, and sometimes the headline was changed,” she added. “In a large portion of these cases, he asked us to change the headlines of reports that were already online or to downgrade them from the lead headline.”

Yeshua never told her why it was important to tilt the coverage, Klein said. But she rejected the possibility that it was done for ideological reasons.

“The site didn’t have any political leanings, it wasn’t edited with ideological baggage,” she said. “They content was judged on whether it was interesting and of journalistic importance.”

“If I hadn’t gotten orders from Ilan, I certainly wouldn’t have published the positive items, and certainly not with the placement they had on the site,” she added.

After Haaretz first reported on the tilted coverage in 2015, “I was sure it would go down,” Klein said. Instead, it increased.

“This was a very tense time,” she explained, with high-profile events like a state comptroller’s report on the 2014 war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and allegations of corruption in the purchase of submarines from Germany. “And it was very hard to cover these under Ilan’s orders. There was constant interaction with him on everything we wanted to publish.

“I had no mandate to tell Ilan no, aside from a few cases where I managed to slip some push notification past him,” she added. “We were very afraid of reaching the point of self-censorship, where journalists would decide in advance not to deal with certain issues, and that would be a mortal blow to freedom of the press.

“Therefore, I didn’t tell them; I said we’d try to publish everything. But the reporters understood, and it gave them a very bad feeling.”

When the state comptroller published a report about suspected financial improprieties in Netanyahu’s overseas trips, Yeshua “wanted the headline to be the prime minister’s response,” Klein said. And when the comptroller’s report on the 2014 war came out, Klein wrote Yeshua to complain that Walla hadn’t yet put its article online. He replied, “I have a few corrections; I’ll call you immediately.”

“Ilan wanted a dry, succinct article, and to have it sent for approval,” Klein said. “The turnaround time was exceptional, and in the end, the text we sent for approval came back with erasures.” Asked whether that had ever happened before, she said it happened only when articles were sent for a check to the military censor.

Prosecutor Amir Tabenkin showed the court Yeshua and Klein’s correspondence about the coverage. In 2016, for instance, Yeshua sent Klein some pictures of Sara Netanyahu with Jill Biden (whose husband Joe was the U.S. vice president at the time) and asked her “to post a nice item.”

“It will look very bad,” Klein wrote back.

“He asked us to leave it up for a long time, and ‘don’t ask why,’” she told the court. “I didn’t ask because I understood the subtext.”

On another occasion, Yeshua asked her to give prominence to an article about the state’s appeal of a court ruling in favor of Meni Naftali, the former caretaker of the prime minister’s official residence who had sued for compensation over what he termed Sara Netanyahu’s abusive behavior.

In one request to Klein to post a positive article about the Netanyahu family, Yeshua wrote, “Do the best you can, it’s a small price to pay for our complete freedom over what is truly important.”

“Ilan said that if we were good about the positive items, we’d have more rope on news events,” Klein told the court. “Did I believe it? No. On the truly important events related to this issue [the Netanyahus], we didn’t.”

Even Yeshua was sometimes cynical about the demands he made. In one case, for instance, after asking Klein to replace a certain picture, he wrote, “Hurry up, this will have a very big impact on the country’s foreign relations. It’s a matter of national importance, and I’m afraid the leader will be harmed.”

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