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May 5, 2021 - Updated on May 6, 2021

Netanyahu corruption trial sheds light on meddling in Israeli media

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is appalled by the disturbing and unacceptable practices threatening media independence in Israel that have come to light during the evidentiary stage of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial, which began last month and resumed in Jerusalem yesterday. Much of it is focussing on Netanyahu’s’ attempts to manipulate the editorial line of several media outlets and more revelations are expected this week.

As the testimony stage was about to begin on 5 April, the prosecutor accused Netanyahu of making “forbidden use of the great governmental power in his hands in order to, inter alia, receive forbidden favours from the owners of leading media outlets in Israel in order to advance his personal interests, principally his desire to again be elected.”


Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of the Walla news website, testified at length during the week of 5 April that Netanyahu repeatedly asked the website’s owners, who were Netanyahu supporters, to provide him and his family with more favourable coverage.


Yeshua’s testimony confirmed hundreds of messages, emails and recordings indicating that Netanyahu used his influence to sway editorial decisions at several media outlets. The police talk of almost daily meddling carried out with little attempt at discretion. Yeshua is being cross-examined by the defence this week.


“The claims being made are extremely serious and unworthy of a democratic country,” said Sabrina Bennoui, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. “This high-profile trial is exposing the lack of editorial independence at certain Israeli media outlets. Their ownership by a small number of pro-government businessmen is very concerning and is giving rise to unacceptable abuses.”


Two sets of allegations involving Netanyahu are particularly disturbing for the media. One, known as Case 4000, concerns the Walla news website’s owner, Shaul Elovitch, who also owned the Israeli telecom company Bezeq. Netanyahu is alleged to have promoted regulations favouring Bezeq from 2015 to 2017, when he was also communications minister, in return for guarantees of favourable coverage for himself and his wife by Walla.


In the other case, known as Case 2000, Netanyahu is alleged to have struck a deal with Arnon Mozes, the owner of Israel’s biggest-circulation daily, Yedioth Aharonot, whereby he would do his best to reduce the influence of its biggest rival, the free daily Israel Hayom, in return for more lenient coverage by Yedioth Aharonot. Netanyahu subsequently tried to get parliament to pass a law designed to limit the distribution of free newspapers.


The first prime minister in Israel’s history to be tried on corruption charges while still in office, Netanyahu insists that he is the victim of a “witch hunt.”


Israel is ranked 86th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.