The day Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced his intention to indict a serving prime minister in three separate corruption cases will become a historic date – not in Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career, which has been nearing its end for months, but in the annals of Israeli democracy and, to a significant extent, in the annals of the Israeli media.
The contest waged over the past decade, and especially over the past four years, is not between right and left but between anti-democratic forces seeking to reshape the country and the forces defending Israeli democracy. The media has become a key player in this contest. It has been marked as an enemy of the camp gnawing away at democracy, largely made up of members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition.
The media has come under attack on all fronts via incitement, including the singling out of journalists, and via legislation, regulation and even corruption. Many reporters and editors went with the flow, foreign cash flowed from a casino magnate, and the prime minister is suspected of making deals with media chiefs to tilt coverage and analysis to his liking.
But in the face of all this, a number of courageous reporters and editors have waged a fierce struggle whose impact was affirmed with the attorney general’s announcement.
It was Gidi Weitz’s investigative report in Haaretz that led the police to open Case 4000, the Bezeq-Walla favorable-news-coverage affair, the most firmly substantiated of the corruption cases. Weitz’s article did exactly what journalism at its finest is supposed to do: present new facts, tie the threads together – and effect change. Without this story the police investigation may never have even started. In this sense the media fulfilled its role as a gatekeeper in exposing an affair that could have reaped a tycoon 1.8 billion shekels [$498 million], much of it at the taxpayers’ expense.
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Guy Peleg’s reports on Channel 12 about Case 2000 exposed the grave affair of trading in public opinion via the daily Yedioth Ahronoth. The investigation began when the police got their hands on the recordings made by Ari Harow, a former Netanyah bureau chief, but it was the reporting on this, thanks to leaks, that exposed the cynical and tainted relations between political power and the media. Peleg’s reporting helped inexorably alter the public image of two very powerful figures, Netanyahu and Yedioth publisher Arnon Mozes.
On Channel 10 News, Raviv Drucker stands up to people in power and exposes their conduct. In the past, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert were the focus. In recent years, it has been Netanyahu and his close circle. Drucker’s program “Hamakor” (“The Source”) has also placed the goings-on at media outlets – Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel Hayom and Walla – at center stage. The program’s creators understood the importance of reporting not just on what goes on in the corridors of government but also in the media, particularly because much of it is in the stranglehold of power-hungry politicians and cynical tycoons.
On the website The Seventh Eye, an effort was made every day to expose the media’s hidden aspects: the propaganda of Israel Hayom, the corrupt culture of the heads of Yedioth Ahronoth, and Netanyahu’s attempts to replace a critical media with blind followers.
These journalists went about their work at a time when, in much of the media, other journalists were being crushed in a calculated campaign of obliteration. Employees of the Israel Broadcasting Authority fell victim to Netanyahu’s abuses. The heads of the Kan public broadcaster became a target of unbridled attacks and the corporation was nearly split up. Channel 10 had to cope with years of regulatory uncertainty due to Netanyahu’s attempts to subdue it.
The list continues: The entire media market went through a financial tumult and became corrupted as a consequence of the propaganda spread by Israel Hayom since 2007. Army Radio underwent an ugly process of politicization led by Yaron Dekel. The Communications Ministry headed by Netanyahu puppet Shlomo Filber, and the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council, were subordinated to what is now being called a serious corruption affair. Walla journalists were made captive to the Elovitches – the controlling owners of Bezeq and Walla – and the Netanyahus.
It’s impossible to quantify the enormous damage done to the media in terms of money, time, freedom of expression, morale and emotional well-being. The decline in Israel’s ranking for freedom of the press is just a small part of the story. Hundreds of journalists have been affected directly or indirectly by Netanyahu’s moves, and Israelis have been besieged by the message that the media is the enemy rather than an instrument that protects them from tyranny.
Certain media outlets, reporters and editors who didn’t forget what their job was stood up to this onslaught. Even if only a small number practice brave journalism, this can be enough to change the tide. Like the other gatekeepers who deserve our thanks, they can hold their heads up high.
Dr. Anat Balint is a media researcher and guest lecturer at the University of San Francisco.