A particularly interesting story lies concealed in the appendix to the amended indictment filed this week against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding allegations that he provided regulatory concessions to the controlling shareholder of Bezeq telecommunications in exchange for favorable coverage on Bezeq’s Walla News website. In legal language, the story is described as follows in Section 150: “Change in headline and downgrading article that dealt with the fact that Netanyahu has not yet met with the family of Avera Mengistu.” (“Downgrading article” refers to giving it a less prominent position on the Walla website).
What lies behind this dull description is a sickening incident. An Israeli civilian crosses into the Gaza Strip and disappears. His suffering family complains in the media that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not bothered to visit them. And then, as a result of the prime minister’s ties to a media owner, the CEO of the website intervenes and prevents their message from getting through to the public. They are silenced.
The members of Avera Mengistu’s family, people without connections who have desperately tried through the media to get Netanyahu to act, couldn’t have imagined that the media outlet to which they were speaking was deeply entangled in the prime minister’s corruption.
Journalist Avishay Ben Haim claims the indictment is an attempt to deprive the so-called Second Israel of its beloved leader? The real story, in fact, is about a leader and a wealthy businessman who stole from members of that socioeconomically disadvantaged Second Israel the right to make their voices heard.
For example, claims by employees at the prime minister’s residence of that they were abused by the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu: The indictment describes legitimate demands for coverage of Sara’s side of the dispute – but also demands to censor and erase the household staff’s claims. Yair Netanyahu, one of the couple’s sons, is even alleged to have demanded that a news report be removed for the “transgression” of reporting the views of Arab university students who complained about difficulties they encountered on campus as members of a minority.
The demand was so shameless that even Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Bezeq at the time, refused – but that was a rare exception. According to the indictment, known as Case 4000, Elovitch usually acceded to his friend’s demands, no matter how baseless. As in the following story, for example – though I recommend taking Dramamine or another anti-nausea medication before reading: During the summer of 2016, families that had lost loved ones in the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip called for a government commission of inquiry. A few criticized Netanyahu harshly. One might disagree over the criticism, but it was clearly appropriate to provide the families with a media platform to express their views. Walla journalists thought so too, and posted an article on the site. But then, someone in Netanyahu’s demanded – and obtained – its removal.
If the sacred task of improving Netanyahu’s image justifies silencing bereaved families, it seems that silencing in other instances is a trivial matter. And if critics are being silenced, it’s only natural not to publish in the first place information that could draw flak. And so, it is alleged, reports on a variety of subjects were removed or dropped: on money that this leader of “the Second Israel” held in a tax haven; on the cost of a bed installed for him on an airplane, and of a hotel stay in Warsaw – in addition of course, to expenses at the prime minister’s residence. The public is paying those bills, but better that they don’t know the details.
The appendix to the indictment hundreds of examples of the influence of the Netanyahu-Elovitch relationship on reporting on the prime minister. To make the charges seem trifling, Netanyahu supporters focus on the outre items – the demand to report on Sara Netanyahu’s meeting with Mariah Carey, Yair Netanyahu’s request for a “paparazzi picture” and the demand (twice!) for reporting Netanyahu’s having made a list of the 10 most admired men in America.
These spicy, entertaining oddities may not pose a serious threat to the future of Israeli democracy and media freedom. The entirely concrete danger lies not in seeking flattering news coverage but in the demand to bury negative reporting and the exploitation of business-government ties to deprive citizens of information.
Case 4000 is legally complex, but at its heart is a simple, chilling story about media outlets that, instead of “serv[ing] the governed, not the governors,” in the apt phrasing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, did the exact opposite.
Itay Rom is a journalist at Israel Channel 13 News.