By RUTH MARGALIT (New York Times)
In its annual report released this spring, Freedom House, an American democracy advocacy organization, downgraded Israel’s freedom of the press ranking from “free” to “partly free.” To anyone following Israeli news media over the past year and a half, this was hardly surprising. Freedom House focused primarily on the “unchecked expansion” of paid content in editorial pages, as well as on the outsize influence of Israel Hayom (“Israel Today”), a free daily newspaper owned by the American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and widely believed to promote the views of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israel Hayom’s bias is well documented. A 2013 investigative report on Israeli television revealed drafts of several articles written by the paper’s journalists that had been systematically changed by the editor in chief to remove criticism of the prime minister. For a newspaper to have a political agenda is, of course, nothing new. But Israel Hayom isn’t conservative or right wing in the broad sense. Rather, the paper megaphones whatever is in the interest of the prime minister. Naftali Bennett, a far-right government minister, has said “Israel Hayom is Pravda — the mouthpiece of one man.”
In many ways, the Freedom House report missed the real worrying shifts. Mr. Netanyahu’s attempts to control the country’s pages and airwaves go much further than Israel Hayom. For the past 18 months, in addition to his prime ministerial duties, he has served as Israel’s communications minister (as well as its foreign minister, economy minister and minister of regional cooperation). In this role, he and his aides have brazenly leveraged his power to seek favorable coverage from outlets that he once routinely described as “radically biased.”
Efforts to stifle freedom of the press can be seen as part of a broader attack by Mr. Netanyahu and his ministers on Israel’s democratic institutions, including the Supreme Court and nongovernmental organizations. Dissent from the official government line is consistently called into suspicion. In this climate, the news media has become a personal battleground for Mr. Netanyahu. Nahum Barnea, a pre-eminent Israeli columnist, said last year that Mr. Netanyahu’s “obsession” with the news media showed him to be “gripped by fear and paranoia.”
On the first day after he was carried into a fourth term in office, Mr. Netanyahu took a seemingly small but unusual step: He fired the Communications Ministry’s director general and named in his stead a man best known for having once served as Mr. Netanyahu’s chief of staff. Any objections that this move may have raised were pre-empted by Mr. Netanyahu, who had already required all members of his coalition to sign a “communications clause,” guaranteeing their automatic support for any decision made in the future by the communications minister — in other words, by him.
Since the appointment of its new director general, the ministry has ruled on a series of decisions that have been highly advantageous to Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications group. Bezeq also operates Walla News, one of the most popular news sites in the country, and a close associate of Mr. Netanyahu’s, Shaul Elovitch, owns a controlling stake.
It didn’t take long before the site’s coverage of the Netanyahu government turned decidedly positive. According to a recent report in the liberal newspaper Haaretz, the site’s C.E.O. has issued directives to produce puff pieces about Mr. Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, and her “fashionable makeover”; to tone down headlines of op-eds critical of the prime minister; and to keep unflattering statistics, such as a recent poverty report, off its home page.
“What can management do?” a Walla News journalist lamented to me. “We’re threatened here by a combination of the most powerful politician in the country and one of the most powerful commercial companies in the country.”
Walla News isn’t alone. An atmosphere of intimidation has begun to take hold in many, if not most, of the country’s newsrooms. A source in Israel Hayom, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, told me that the prime minister “holds everyone on a leash — everyone — not just us. With the other outlets, you might not realize what their interests are but they exist all the same.”
In broadcast journalism, Mr. Netanyahu has installed associates in positions of authority where he can, and has cast doubt on the financial future of places he can’t. All three of Israel’s main television news channels — Channel 2, Channel 10 and the Israel Broadcasting Authority — are now in danger of being fragmented, shut down or overhauled, respectively. The government’s official reason behind these moves is to open up the communications industry to more competition. But there seems to be a double standard: On other issues, like natural gas, the prime minister has been loath to take a stand against monopolies. As Ilana Dayan, a leading investigative journalist for Channel 2, told me: “Sometimes competition is the refuge of the antidemocrat.”
While journalists tend to rue these latest developments, many Israelis view Mr. Netanyahu’s battle for control over the news media as a long-overdue corrective after years of a liberal or left-wing bias. “Netanyahu’s supporters might be tired of him, but more than they are sick of him they despise the old leftist elites,” Amit Segal, a political correspondent for Channel 2, told me. This antagonism was two decades in the making. In 1999, speaking about the news media and its reaction to the prospects of his winning another general election, Mr. Netanyahu famously coined the slogan “They’re a-f-r-a-i-d.”
“At some point Netanyahu realized that his battle with the media makes him very popular among his base supporters,” Ms. Dayan said. “By catering to this base, the result has been a phenomenal success for him.”
If Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to control the news media are indeed aimed at correcting a liberal bias, his actions have proved awfully narrow. His and his associates’ repeated interventions in editorial content haven’t propped up the ideological right or given voice to marginalized, conservative sectors of society. For Mr. Netanyahu, the stakes are personal. “Every time you see an appointment by Bibi of someone in the media, it’s meant either to help Sara or to help advance his own private affairs,” Mr. Segal told me, using the prime minister’s nickname.
Although for years the most widely read daily, Yediot Ahronot, and its owner took a decidedly anti-Netanyahu line, claims of left-wing bias fall flat these days, when most Israelis are getting their news from Israel Hayom or Walla News, and when the only remaining liberal bastion — Haaretz — struggles to stay afloat. And yet Mr. Netanyahu continues to present himself as a victim of a vindictive press.
The only heartening thing in all this is that news outlets are pushing back to maintain their independence. Investigative “60 Minutes”-type programs like “Uvda” (“Fact”) and “Hamakor” (“The Source”) continue to delve into government corruption and to air in prime-time slots. “Despite the assault on the press, the Israeli media remains very critical, very aggressive, and has a lot of chutzpah. It’s a kind of basic instinct that’s part of our DNA,” Ms. Dayan, who hosts Uvda, told me.
Earlier this year, Walla News’ diplomatic correspondent Amir Tibon wrote an article critical of Mr. Netanyahu’s response to the latest wave of Palestinian violence under the headline “Netanyahu’s Promises of Calm Replaced by Cheerleading.” Soon after the piece was published, Mr. Tibon was told that the prime minister’s office was pressuring editors to remove it from the website. Taking to Twitter, Mr. Tibon wrote of the prime minister’s “attempts to silence criticism.” Apparently as a result, his article remained in place. One thing did change, however: The word “Netanyahu” was removed from its headline.