The End of Israel’s Free Press

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Memorial Day ceremony on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, May 8, 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Memorial Day ceremony on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, May 8, 2019.Credit: מארק ישראל סלם

Hayamin Hehadash chairman Naftali Bennett, one of the victims of Walla’s tendentious coverage that was spurred by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, lashed out at Netanyahu at the time. “I feel sorry for you, Mr. Netanyahu,” Bennett tweeted. “You took the trouble to personally call the owner of Walla to hurt my wife, and this is a despicable and cowardly act. Shame on you.” Last week Bennett sounded different, stating, “The legal system mustn’t take down Netanyahu.” Somehow, Bennett didn’t learn anything from that incident about the role of the media, its future and its ability to tarnish the reputations of politicians and their families.

Many people hope the prime minister will emerge innocent of the suspicions against him. Supporters of Arnon Mozes, the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, and of Shaul Elovitch, Walla’s former publisher, want their innocence proven as well. But if these wishes come true and the legal proceedings don’t bring about the conviction of any of those involved, we can declare the end of Israel’s free press.

The indecent acts committed as a result of the relationship between government, money and the media in Cases 2000 (the Yedioth quid-pro-quo affair) and Case 4000 (the Bezeq-Walla affair) are extremely serious. Even if proving criminality is stymied by “legal difficulties,” a term Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit loves to use to describe any complex matter, we’re talking about a complete undermining of the last remaining shred of public confidence in politicians and media outlets.

The core of the allegations in both cases turns favorable coverage, muted criticism and the disparaging of political rivals into goods that Mozes and Elovitch could trade with Netanyahu for valuable economic benefits. Let’s not fool ourselves. The practice of journalistic blackmail in exchange for benefits (with regard to advertisers, for example), exists beyond the Netanyahu cases. These specific investigations uncovered the smoking guns: the recordings by Ari Harow in Case 2000 and the testimony of Ilan Yeshua, Walla’s CEO, in Case 4000, as well as that of state’s witness Nir Hefetz.

These investigations revealed the methodical skewing of press coverage in exchange for regulatory benefits, in the Bezeq case, and conversations about a deal to weaken Israel Hayom, Yedioth’s main rival, in exchange for Mozes’ promises of favorable coverage that would keep Netanyahu in power (“We’ll make sure you remain prime minister”). These exchanges were not chance or off-the-cuff remarks, but ongoing discussions that went into detail about how to reduce competition from Israel Hayom.

Netanyahu comes out looking bad in these cases, and there’s a chance that it will cost him dearly, in the form of a conviction. But, the owners of Yedioth and the Bezeq-Walla group come out looking plenty bad as well because they transformed their media outlets into tools for extorting economic benefits from the government. This behavior isn’t just a problem of image or undermining public confidence, but rather a total upheaval of the role and status of journalism in a democratic country.

When a publisher promises a politician that he will help that person remain in office if he only grants him economic benefits by restricting competition from his biggest rival, he is aggrieving the public no matter how you look at it. If the coverage is negative – it’s because the politician didn’t deliver the goods. If it’s positive – then it’s to bribe the politician. And when the publisher tries to reduce the power of his competitor, he is undercutting competition and doing a disservice to the competitor’s readership. Freedom of the press is undermined, freedom of political action is made subject to extortion and free competition is nullified.

Cases 2000 and 4000 are critical to Netanyahu’s political future, but also to journalism’s future of journalism. Closing them without issuing indictments and rendering judgment on the severity of the actions committed will turn Israeli media into a tool for extorting benefits from the regime. A legal proceeding is critical to setting the rules of the game and drawing the red lines in the relationship between money, government and the media. Democracy is not just free elections and executing the public’s will; it also requires functioning systems of enforcement and criticism.

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