Netanyahu trial'The pressure was there all the time'

Ex-Walla editor: PM’s meddling led news staff to liken him to North Korean dictator

Avi Alkalay describes ‘very aggressive mental coercion’ that slanted coverage in premier’s favor in 2015-2016, says website was ‘a servant of a single family’

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Avi Alkalay, former editor at the Walla news site, arrives to testify in the corruption trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jerusalem District Court, September 12, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
Avi Alkalay, former editor at the Walla news site, arrives to testify in the corruption trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jerusalem District Court, September 12, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

The former editor of the Walla news site testified Tuesday in the corruption trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, describing relentless and aggressive pressure on the outlet’s editorial staff to slant their coverage in the premier’s favor in 2015-2016 and saying staff members commonly referred to the premier as “Kim,” after North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

Avi Alkalay said the outlet’s editorial staff had undergone “very aggressive mental coercion regarding the content relating to the Netanyahu family.”

“The pressure was there all the time and the intervention was in all areas,” Alkalay testified.

Alkalay is a witness in Case 4000, which involves allegations that Netanyahu handed the Shaul Elovitch-owned Bezeq telecom giant regulatory benefits in exchange for editorial intervention in Walla, also owned by Elovitch,  in Netanyahu’s favor. Netanyahu is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in the case.

The discussion at the Jerusalem District Court came as national attention was on a pivotal High Court of Justice hearing on the government’s reasonableness law, which could potentially herald a constitutional crisis.

Alkalay said interventions on behalf of Walla owner Elovitch sought to portray the Netanyahus as “always good and in the right, both on political matters and on personal issues.

“They commonly asked to contradict or change an opinion expressed by a reporter or the significance… of a story,” Alkalay continued.

A composite image of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and former Bezeq controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch. (Flash90: Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)

Alkalay said that as editor he “chose an inappropriate tactic and negotiated over news items.” He gave an example of a case in which he took the word “failure” out of a headline relating to Netanyahu. “There was no professional consideration that justified this. If I take a word out to protect the prime minister’s honor, I’m doing a disservice to the profession.”

The former chief editor said all the reporters understood at the time that they couldn’t freely report on the Netanyahus, and that Alkalay would sometimes have to alter their text, or at least the headline and underline, to enable the story to stay  up.

Walla “wasn’t a newspaper but the servant of a single family,” Alkalay alleged, adding that staff developed an entire jargon referring to the site as a “shish kebab shop” that had to “hand out the meat exactly as requested.

The staff would use the codeword “parsley” to refer to Sara Netanyahu while “less paprika meant being less snarky and sharp,” he said. “And the nickname for Netanyahu was Kim, after the North Korean ruler who controls the media.”

This photo provided by the North Korean government on September 10, 2023, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waving from a train in Pyongyang as he leaves for Russia. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

Netanyahu is also on trial for two additional counts of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000, which concerns gifts he allegedly inappropriately received from billionaire benefactors, and Case 2000, in which he allegedly negotiated to obtain positive media coverage in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper in exchange for curtailing its competitors.

He denies any wrongdoing in the cases against him and claims that the charges were fabricated in a witch hunt led by the police and state prosecution.

Netanyahu’s trial began three years ago and, as things stand, the proceedings, including potential appeals, are seen as unlikely to end before 2028-2029. In late June, it was reported that the judges consider the bribery charge against the premier difficult to prove, and that they convened with state prosecutors and Netanyahu’s defense team to discuss the possibility of a plea bargain.

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