Former news site editor says he was pressured to cover Netanyahu favorably

Yinon Magal confirms he was directed to portray PM — who is accused of manipulating media execs — and his wife in a positive light

An undated picture of then-Walla editor Yinon Magal‎‏ in the studio. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
An undated picture of then-Walla editor Yinon Magal‎‏ in the studio. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Yinon Magal, a former lawmaker who once edited the Walla news site, said Thursday that he was pressured to cover Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his family in a positive light.

“There was intense pressure exerted from the top to direct coverage in the Netanyahus’ favor,” Magal told Army Radio.

Magal, who left Walla in 2014 to run for the Knesset with the Jewish Home party, later clarified in a tweet that Netanyahu wasn’t the only politician singled out for positive media coverage.

“To be clear, the pressure was also exerted not just regarding Netanyahu, but other political figures as well,” he said without elaborating.

Magal told Army Radio that he had not been summoned to give testimony to police in the ongoing corruption cases against Netanyahu, which include allegations of media manipulation, but said he would if asked.

“If I get called by police to testify, then I will certainly tell them what happened there,” he said.

Magal indicated that a representative of Shaul Elovitch, Walla’s owner and a reported friend of Netanyahu, was a regular fixture in the newsroom.

Shaul Elovitch, Bezeq’s controlling shareholder (Calcalist screenshot)

According to Haaretz, law enforcement officials suspect that in exchange for burying negative media coverage about the Netanyahu family, Elovitch, who is the controlling shareholder of Bezeq, was promised that the government would put the brakes on reforms that would have hurt the telecom company’s bottom line.

Elovitch is considered a personal friend of Netanyahu’s, and critics have long railed at the conflict of interest that relationship could cause the premier in his capacity as communications minister, a post he filled from the end of 2014 until February of last year.

Earlier this week, police recommended Netanyahu be indicted for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two criminal investigations involving suspicions he accepted gifts and favors from wealthy businessmen in exchange for advancing their interests.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, are alleged to have received illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, most notably the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, totalling NIS 1 million ($282,000).

In return, Netanyahu is alleged by police to have intervened on Milchan’s behalf in matters relating to legislation, business dealings and visa arrangements. Milchan is also a shareholder and board member of Channel 10.

Case 2000 involves a suspected illicit quid pro quo deal between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes that would have seen the prime minister weaken a rival daily, the Sheldon Adelson-backed Israel Hayom, in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

Arnon Milchan (center) with Shimon Peres (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu, March 28, 2005. (Flash90/File)

Under the alleged agreement between Mozes and Netanyahu — which was never implemented — the prime minister said he would advance legislation to curb the circulation of Israel Hayom if Mozes instructed his reporters and op-ed writers to change their often negative stance toward him.

Netanyahu has long sought control over certain aspects of Israel’s media landscape, even appointing himself a communications minister and overseeing a number of major reforms to public and commercial outlets.

According to the police recommendation, Netanyahu was involved in two separate but linked schemes aimed at manipulating media executives in order to benefit Milchan.

“The prime minister is suspected to have worked to advance the acceptance of Milchan as a shareholder for the ‘united’ Channel 2, an investment that Milchan sought for financial gain,” the first clause in the recommendations regarding Netanyahu and the media reads.

Later in the document, police also wrote that “the prime minister is suspected of working, against the law, on the issue of Channel 10, despite his friend Milchan’s being a shareholder in the channel.”

The suspicions relate to a series of interventions that Netanyahu is said to have carried out on Milchan’s behalf dating back three years, to when the Hollywood producer sought to sell the majority of his shares in the financially strapped Channel 10.

The channel, one of only two independent television stations in Israel at the time, has for years been struggling to pay back the millions of shekels it owes to the government, and has been repeatedly saved from going completely dark by a number of last-minute reprieves.

In 2015, after Netanyahu threatened to withhold renewal of the channel’s broadcasting license, Milchan sold over half of his 24 percent stake in the company, pocketing an estimated NIS 25 million ($7 million) from the transaction.

Netanyahu has rejected the police recommendations as “unfounded,” and denied any wrongdoing in either case.

The police recommendations will now go to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who will have to decide whether to indict Netanyahu on any or all of the suggested charges.

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