Over the first few weeks of 2017, Israeli TV news viewers have been exposed to conversations Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has held in recent years with Arnon Mozes, publisher of some of the biggest newspapers and websites in Israel, including the daily Yedioth Ahronoth. The meetings are at the center of a police investigation to determine whether Netanyahu attempted to ensure more positive coverage in Mozes’s publications by offering to reduce the circulation of its rival, Israel Hayom, the country’s leading print outlet, distributed free of charge and backed by American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.
Multiple investigations are under way into the prime minister and his family members, ranging from the Yedioth Ahronoth inquiry to an examination of the receipt of gifts from foreign businesspeople. No charges have been brought against Netanyahu or others, and Netanyahu has repeatedly denied the allegations, but the Mozes transcripts have increased concern among Israeli journalists that the media may be subject to political influence.
Last July, the weekly meeting of the Israeli cabinet was more heated than usual, and not just because of the summer sultriness. The main topic of discussion: Netanyahu’s decision, in his role as minister of communications, to postpone the launch of the country’s new public broadcasting corporation for more than a year. “It’s inconceivable that we’ll establish a corporation that we won’t control. What’s the point?” asked Miri Regev, culture and sports minister, according to reports about the meeting, including one that appeared in leading Israeli daily Haaretz. (Disclosure: Uri Blau has been an investigative reporter with Haaretz since 2005.)
Regev’s comments made many journalists and politicians fear the move was an attempt to prevent the establishment of an independent public broadcaster altogether. Gila Gamliel, minister for social equality, who attended the meeting, told Israeli Army Radio, “Some of the statements … were bordering on fascism, no doubt. We should keep in mind that we are a democratic state and that this is the first and foremost element that outlines our overall conduct.” The political and public outcry, combined with a lack of support from some of his coalition partners, nudged Netanyahu to revise the timetable, delaying the launch until this April.
“An atmosphere of fear prevails in Israel,” says Oren Persico of the nonprofit media watchdog The Seventh Eye. “Those who attempt to challenge the public’s racism, the military, or the image of Israel as a just and moral state face harsh criticism.”
One journalist who has incurred Netanyahu’s wrath is Ilana Dayan, a veteran anchorwoman who has led the “Uvda” news program for over 20 years. Last November Uvda broadcast a piece investigating Netanyahu’s close associates and the role of his wife, Sara, in appointing officials. Netanyahu’s office responded to Dayan’s reporting with a statement that read in part: “The time has come to unmask Ilana Dayan, who has proven once again that she has not even a drop of professional integrity. Ilana Dayan is one of the leaders of a concerted frenzy against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, aimed at toppling the right-wing government and leading to the establishment of a left-wing government.” Dayan read the statement in full on air, resulting in widespread criticism of the prime minister. Nevertheless, an evaluation by the Mako news and entertainment website of social media chatter in the hours after the show estimated that 47% of the Israeli public supported Netanyahu’s response and his portrayal of Dayan.
The Mozes transcripts have increased concern among Israeli journalists that the media may be subject to political influence
Since then, Netanyahu has continued to single out specific journalists and outlets for criticism. Like President Trump, he uses social media to directly reach audiences. On Facebook, the prime minister alleges that there is a coordinated media campaign to overthrow his government. He holds few press conferences and in recent years has granted very few interviews. In this atmosphere of contempt for the media, lack of tolerance for differing opinions has become characteristic of the overall political environment. (For more on the challenges of covering Netanyahu and Trump, see “What U.S. Journalists Can Learn from the Israeli Press.”)
Last February, Army Radio presenter Razi Barkai compared the emotions of Jewish and Palestinian families who had both lost sons in the Arab-Israeli conflict. He became the target of attacks from both politicians and the public. Parents of missing Israeli soldiers and the right-wing group Yisrael Sheli (“My Israel”) called on Moshe Yaalon, the defense minister at the time, to suspend Barkai. Shortly afterward, Yaron Dekel, head of Army Radio, which is run by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), apologized for Barkai’s comments and halved his airtime.
In addition to the fear of being targeted, the Israeli press faces restrictions that are uncommon in other liberal democracies. Military censorship and restrictions on journalists’ movements have existed for what Israel defines as security needs since the establishment of the country in 1948. Court gag orders are another means to stop publication: By one estimate, over the past 15 years, the number of gag orders issued in Israel has more than tripled. In its most recent “Freedom of the Press” report, published last spring, the nonprofit Freedom House downgraded Israel’s status from “free” to “partly free” for the second time in four years.
In its analysis, Freedom House wrote that the decline in Israel’s freedom of the press is also “due to the growing impact of Israel Hayom, whose owner-subsidized business model endangered the stability of other media outlets, and the unchecked expansion of paid content—some of it government funded—whose nature was not clearly identified to the public.”
Israel Hayom—with its editorial tagline: “Remember, we are Israelis”—is a freesheet distributed across Israel in a circulation of 275,000 weekday copies and 400,000 copies during weekends. It was established in 2007 by Adelson, a supporter of Prime Minister Netanyahu and a donor to U.S. Republican presidential and congressional candidates. (In 2015, the Adelson family bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal, after which many reporters and editors left the newspaper, noting, according to an NPR report, “curtailed editorial freedom, murky business dealings and unethical managers.”)
Critics call Israel Hayom “Bibi-ton,” combining Netanyahu’s nickname (Bibi) with the Hebrew word for newspaper (iton), because of its perceived bias toward the prime minister. Between 2007 and 2014, the paper lost $190 million, but Adelson’s financial support means that Israel Hayom does not face the same financial pressures as its competitors.
In response to the Freedom House report, Israel Hayom columnist Dror Eydar, who has also been a paid speechwriter for the prime minister’s office, wrote, “The truth is that Israel Hayom has made an immense contribution to the democratization of media discourse in Israel … The premise behind Freedom House’s new designation of the Israeli media as only ‘partly free’ is childishly simple: A free press is one that is aligned with leftist political positions.” (Israel Hayom’s editor, spokesperson, and leading columnists did not respond to interview requests.)
Yaakov Katz, editor of the English-language Jerusalem Post, doesn’t buy into the argument that there are limits on freedom of the press in Israel. “Israel has a vibrant and free press that reflects the full spectrum of Israel’s political landscape,” he says, “including newspapers on the far left that oppose Israel’s continued presence in the West Bank to newspapers on the far right that advocate strongly to expand that same presence. I view this as a demonstration of Israel’s democracy, which ensures a free press and encourages news outlets to express their opinions even when they directly oppose government policy.”
Israeli’s legacy news outlets face the same commercial pressures as their counterparts in other countries. According to business data-information group Ifat, 2016 ad income for print dropped 12% compared to the previous year (from $212 million to $184 million). Last year 30% of total ad revenue went to digital outlets; 18% went to print. In this atmosphere—and, in part, because of it—digital start-ups are emerging to provide alternative independent coverage.
The country is also increasingly divided politically. The ongoing conflict with the Palestinians and the regular spasms of violence have split the Israeli population between those who want to evacuate the settlements built on land Israel occupied in 1967 and those who want to annex it or maintain the current situation. Over the past 40 years, though most governments have been led by right-wing parties, a survey conducted in 2015 for the Israeli digital media conference DIGIT found that 57% of Israelis see the media as left-leaning; 10% see it as right-leaning.
Almost 20% of the Israeli population are Muslims who speak Arabic. They consume local Arabic-language media and satellite channels as well as Hebrew-language media. According to a survey conducted by Israel’s Government Advertisement Agency, in 2016, 69% of Arabic-speaking citizens were exposed to the Internet, with Facebook being the most popular site, followed by Google and Panet, a local Arabic-language site. However, more than a third of Arab-speaking consumers watched Hebrew TV channels, and 31% were reading Hebrew-language newspapers.
An incident that shook Israel over the past year illustrates the effect public opinion has on how some outlets navigate coverage.
On March 24, 2016, a human-rights activist in Hebron filmed IDF soldier Elor Azaria shooting to death a Palestinian, who was on the ground, and unarmed, minutes after trying to stab soldiers. Azaria stood trial on manslaughter charges and was convicted in January. In February, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Initially, coverage of the incident in most outlets was neutral or critical. “Soldier was filmed shooting Palestinian terrorist laying on the ground. Military police investigate,” reported Ynet, Israel’s most popular digital news site, on the day of the event. In the days after the shooting, a public movement in support of Azaria took shape. A social media campaign and demonstrations against his arrest swept the country. Some media outlets changed the tone of their coverage, with a more empathetic treatment of Azaria and his family. “Weeping sister of the shooting soldier: ‘You are sentencing Azaria in a drumhead court-martial,’” Ynet wrote two days after the shooting. (A “drumhead court-martial” is a trial held in the field in response to urgent allegations.) “At home before the verdict with mommy’s food,” wrote Walla, one of Israel’s leading news sites.
Sharon Gal, a prominent TV presenter with Channel 20, initiated a successful crowdfunding campaign to cover the soldier’s legal expenses and promised donors a tour of the station’s studios. Gal’s colleague Erel Segal said on-air: “I love Azaria. I think he is mistreated. I feel sorry for him and hope he will be acquitted.”
According to Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, director of the Center for Democratic Values and Institutions and head of Media Reform Program at the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), “the current reaction against media is dangerous, as it jeopardizes the very existence of the press.” Politicians claim social media are a more “authentic” way of communication, Shwartz Altshuler says, but that “completely ignores the fact such platforms don’t give space to critical questions.”
In this atmosphere of contempt for the media, lack of tolerance for differing opinions has become characteristic of the overall political environment
Digital start-ups are trying to make their way in this fraught political and economic landscape. In 2014, journalist Tomer Avital initiated a crowdfunded project called 100 Days of Transparency. The idea was to use donations from the public to hire private detectives and enlist volunteers to investigate members of the Israeli parliament who oppose transparency. Avital’s move was unconventional and, to some, ethically questionable, but stories from 100 Days have been regularly picked up by the mainstream media. The 100 Days project has been so successful and so popular that it’s now in its second year and last year won the DIGIT Prize for Excellence in Online Journalism. Avital was ranked as one of the 100 most influential people in Israeli media.
Avital, who started 100 Days out of frustration with the increasing politicization of the media, has big ambitions for the site. “We will change reality when we break news on a regular basis, each evening at 8 p.m.,” he says, referring to the broadcast slot for the main evening TV news program in Israel. He sees a hybrid financial model as the way forward for independent news outlets, “an independent public broadcasting corporation that will work side-by-side with strong crowdfunded bodies and commercial media.”
Another outlet offering a new model of journalism is +972, an online magazine collectively owned by a group of journalists, bloggers, and photographers aiming to provide original, on-the-ground reporting and analysis of events in Israel and Palestine. “We wanted to do something a bit more than just aggregation,” says founding editor Noam Sheizaf. To that end, +972 (the name is a reference to Israel’s international phone code) combines citizen journalism and blogging with traditional editing and fact-checking. The site features original writing by its own bloggers, along with reporting and commentary by outside contributors. Stories from +972 include the first interview with Hagai Amir, the brother and co-conspirator of Yigal Amir, who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
Last year, the +972 Hebrew site, Local Call, a joint project with the U.S.-based nonprofit Just Vision, which works to increase the influence of Palestinians and Israelis working to end the occupation, published an exclusive on a Jerusalem cinema complex that refused to work with Arab cab drivers, a story picked up by Channel 2 News, Israel’s most watched television news program. The site also published the “License to Kill” series, which examined cases in which Palestinians were shot dead by IDF soldiers without a clear provocation or any repercussions for the shooters. Such incidents often go unreported in the mainstream media.
Critics call Israel Hayom “Bibi-ton,” combining Netanyahu’s nickname (Bibi) with the Hebrew word for newspaper (iton), because of its perceived bias toward the prime minister
One third of +972’s budget comes from readers, with the rest coming from fundraising and project partners. But Sheizaf doesn’t think Israeli media’s biggest challenge is funding. “I think the challenge is more in the fields of ethics and politics,” he says. “I am afraid the Israeli media, like many other national institutions, has been corrupted by government policies, especially but not exclusively, on the Palestinian issue. The media here simply stopped serving its function, which is to provide accurate, in-context information. It’s more in the business of feel-good propaganda now.” Last November, Haaretz published an investigation into Walla that concluded, among other findings, that some articles on the site were edited to include more positive images and quotes from Sara Netanyahu.
At the other end of the political spectrum is Boaz Golan, founder of News 0404. (The name is a reference to the local phone area code serving the northern part of Israel, where the site originated.) Golan agrees with Sheizaf’s premise—that Israeli media coverage is skewed—but not with Sheizaf’s conclusion—that the government is to blame.
News 0404 “wouldn’t have been born if the mainstream media wasn’t leaning to the left,” says Golan, who set up the site in 2012. “I decided to establish News 0404 when I saw the media isn’t balanced. Stories about what’s happening in the West Bank, about actions Arabs committed, were hidden. News 0404 isn’t a balanced news site, but unlike other platforms we don’t hide that fact. I am not hiding that we operate for the sake of the land of Israel, the people of Israel, and its security forces. We will not give space to anyone who operates against us.”
News 0404 had a leading role in the “David of Nahal” campaign in the spring of 2014. David Admov was a soldier from the Nahal brigade. A video filmed in Hebron shows him threatening Palestinian youths with his rifle. The soldier was sent to prison, though, according to the military at the time, for offenses not related to the incident with the Palestinians. Following his trial, tens of thousands of Israelis, many of them soldiers, took part in a campaign supporting Admov and criticizing the military for prosecuting him. Thousands uploaded photos of themselves holding signs saying, “I too am David the Nahal.” News 0404 became the main hub for support of Admov.
With over 400,000 Facebook likes, News 0404 has already surpassed Haaretz in social media popularity and has 20 times more likes than Avital’s platform. Last June, Israeli businessman Avi Bar, owner of other right-leaning media outlets, invested $500,000 in the site.
While most digital start-ups don’t have access to that kind of capital, during a period of increasing political and social divisions, the question is whether these sites can do more than just reaffirm the existing points of view of their audiences.