Israelis have witnessed several crude attempts to influence the media in recent years. The indictments against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose co-defendants are the former owners of the Walla internet news site, Shaul and Iris Elovitch, and the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, Arnon Mozes, revealed political attempts to turn these media outlets in Netanyahu’s favor.
But attempts to slant media coverage aren’t confined to politicians. Under the surface, a great deal of unacceptable pressure is exerted on the media – for instance, threats to cease advertising to tilt coverage for the benefit of a private corporation’s interests.
The pressure exerted in recent weeks by the chairman of the national lottery Mifal Hapayis, Avigdor Yitzhaki, in an attempt to prevent an investigative report about former Mossad director Yossi Cohen from airing on the television program “Hamakor,” is even worse (as reported by Gidi Weitz and Nati Tucker in Monday’s Haaretz). According to the report, Mifal Hapayis has virtually ceased advertising on Reshet 13, the station that produces “Hamakor,” since the beginning of 2022, and a meeting between Yitzhaki and station executives to discuss commercial agreements was canceled unexpectedly after the investigative report aired.
Yitzhaki doesn’t run a private corporation that advertises in the media. He has a public position, and his power stems from the public funds managed by Mifal Hapayis. The pressure he exerted on Reshet 13’s management not to run the report is a severe abuse of the power he was given to manage the public’s money honestly and fairly.
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Even if Yitzhaki didn’t threaten explicitly to halt advertising, his attempt to exploit his position to silence publication of the report was wrong twice over. It was an attempt to acutely undermine freedom of the press, and it was also an abuse of his public position. State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman must investigate Yitzhaki’s conduct and determine whether public funds were misused in this case.
It’s vital to protect the media from attempts to slant, control, prostitute or extort it. But in the current case, the flaw that enabled Yitzhaki’s seemingly unacceptable involvement in trying to prevent a report from airing on Channel 13 is the very fact that politicians control an institution like Mifal Hapayis, which manages public funds and has an enormous advertising budget.
It’s high time for an institution whose activity is so complex and problematic to be taken out of the politicians’ hands. But until that happens, there must be full transparency about its advertising budgets, so that the public can provide effective oversight and ensure that its money isn’t being used to serve ulterior motives.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.