How Benjamin Netanyahu Is Crushing Israel’s Free Press
Ruth Margalit writes in the NY 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. . .
Hillary Clinton has pledged to support Netanyahu.