Opinion |

The Newspaper That Broke Israel's Pegasus Scandal Didn't Even Try to Get to the Truth

Only a comprehensive inquiry will reveal what really happened, the financial daily Calcalist said. Funny, I thought the paper’s reporters conducted a comprehensive investigation before publishing

Mordechai Gilat
Mordechai Gilat
The NSO Group company logo is displayed on a wall of a building next to one of their branches in southern Israel, two weeks ago.
The NSO Group company logo is displayed on a wall of a building next to one of their branches in southern Israel, two weeks ago.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP
Mordechai Gilat
Mordechai Gilat

A year before the Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered at the beach near Rome in November 1974, a year before his body was run over again and again by his killer, Pasolini wrote the following in the newspaper Corriere della Sera: “I know the names of those responsible for the massacres. … I know the names of the powerful group. … I know the names of the 'apex.' … I know all those names and all the facts.”

Pasolini wrote several other similar sentences and then one that the editors of Israeli financial daily Calcalist should repeat to themselves: “I know. But I do not have the proof.”

Well, last week, Calcalist, part of the Yedioth Ahronoth Group, kept pushing its supposed investigative report on the police’s use of spyware and violations of court orders. It tried to portray the police’s detective department as the Stasi, with a recent police commissioner, Roni Alsheich, playing the role of an infamous American, J. Edgar Hoover, who hunted down politicians, leftists and human rights activists in the 1950 and '60s.

And I remembered Pasolini’s statement, “But I do not have the proof.” I remembered Pasolini and was ashamed of the newspaper and its editors. I was ashamed of them because they published nothing close to investigative journalism.

I was ashamed because they apparently published a collection of sentences and statements with nothing to back them up, because this material resembled vacuous amateur journalism, because this story is turning out to be one of the greatest flops in Israeli media history, one that makes a joke of investigative journalism. A sad joke, by the way.

That’s right, where is the proof? Where are the documents? Where are the secret minutes of the senior officers who allegedly gave the order to hack phones using NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware? Where is the evidence that the paper’s investigative report supposedly relied on?

There is one answer to all these questions: As of now, none of this stuff exists. The newspaper doesn’t possess it.

‘Civilian’ casualties

There is no alternative to this conclusion. I looked for this proof during the first week of the story and couldn’t find it – or in the second week. I looked for it after the earthquake the paper tried to set off by publishing dozens of names of “victims” of the spyware – and again I couldn’t find it. The paper has since been trying to limit the damage.

True, in an investigative report, you don’t shoot off all your ammunition at once. You reveal what you have slowly, you publish only part of it, you make sure not to expose your sources. That’s fine. But nothing? No minutes, no dates and no documents that speak for themselves?

No reports of meetings where senior police detectives took part, where decisions were made that allegedly led to waves of illegal hacks of “civilians”? (I like the use of the word “civilians,” as if the white collar suspects listed by the paper weren’t civilians.) It seems Calcalist’s editors seek to persuade us that one violation of a judge’s order in the investigation of then-Communications Ministry Director General Shlomo Filber, who turned state’s evidence in one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption cases, justifies publication.

What, after four weeks they don’t have to present to the public any golden evidence? The readers of the “investigative report” don’t have the right to know when, for example, the police listened in on Keren Terner, then the director general of the Finance Ministry? Who made the decision in her case and what was the reason for the state to hack her phone, if it did?

Doesn’t the public have the right to know when and why information was extracted from the cellphones of dozens of other people whose names were stated by Calcalist? Does the paper consider this information, which should be at the heart of the investigative report, a state secret?

Let me make clear: For years the police have been tainted with corruption, integrity issues, violence and a culture of mendacity. Not the whole force, not most of the force, but plenty of cancerous cells there need to be removed. There are reasons to criticize the police, there are reasons to ask tough questions of them, and there are reasons to remove officers who have gone bad. The real media has done that and helped remove two police commissioners and a few senior officers who abused their positions.

But the elephant in the room is the Netanyahu trial, and we almost had a state commission of inquiry. We were just a step away from such madness.

Go down, Mozes

So here’s a key question that the paper no doubt won’t bother to reply to, concerning the case in which Calcalist’s owner stands accused of offering a bribe to a prime minister (which is based on a recording) and has an interest in halting the trial to receive a comfortable plea deal. How can the paper dare publish this collection of falsehoods? Where does Arnon Mozes get the chutzpah to pump this unfounded story two weeks before Filber, the most important witness in a similar favors-for-positive-news-coverage case, is due to take the stand?

The scandal takes a turn for the worse when you discover that the paper didn’t even try to do its homework. It didn’t talk to the head of the police’s detective department over the past five years, it didn’t ask questions, it didn’t ask for explanations from Alsheich, the former police commissioner. It didn’t even try to reach the truth.

I heard and saw Alsheich vehemently deny the deeds attributed to the police. I heard and saw him clarify unequivocally that these things never happened. I saw all this and expected the paper to try to contradict Alsheich by pulling something out of its back pocket. But it never did. The paper simply ran away.

What did happen? When Calcalist apparently realized that the findings of the inquiry by the police and the State Prosecutor’s Office were likely to harm the paper’s credibility, when it realized that its house of cards might collapse, it prepared its line of defense: “The exposure of the use of spyware has great public importance,” it wrote, as if to say that its investigative report led to a public debate on the use of invasive spyware, so this justifies the release of the story.

The paper added: “Our commitment to protecting sources restricts our steps … but an in-depth inquiry will lead to the truth. … Only a comprehensive inquiry will reveal the truth.”

Yes, you read that correctly: “only a comprehensive inquiry will reveal the truth.” And I thought innocently that the paper’s journalists conducted a comprehensive investigation and already revealed the truth. I was wrong. I never imaged that the paper wouldn’t do this before publication. I never imagined that it would leave the real journalistic work to others.

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