MK urges probe of i24News over report it tilted coverage to curry PM’s favor

Democratic Camp chairman calls on attorney general to open investigation into allegations channel changed reporting in effort to receive license to broadcast in Israel

Journalists work inside a studio of television channel i24news in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, July 28, 2013 (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)
File: Journalists work inside a studio of television channel i24news in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, July 28, 2013 (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

Democratic Camp chairman Nitzan Horowitz submitted a formal request to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Friday to open an investigation into i24News after an investigative report claimed the Tel Aviv-based international television network tilted its coverage in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s favor — first in an effort to receive a license to broadcast in Israel and later to launch a Hebrew-language channel.

The Haaretz report published Thursday alleged that i24News CEO Frank Melloul bragged about speaking regularly with Netanyahu regarding affairs related to the channel. Both the prime minister and Melloul denied the claim, which was attributed to several current and former i24News employees.

i24News currently broadcasts in English, Arabic and French, but until last year did not air on Israeli television. The Haaretz report alleges that roughly two years ago, Melloul and the outlet’s billionaire founder Patrick Derhi began issuing directives to editors to soften their coverage of Netanyahu as the company worked to gain approval to broadcast in Israel. Editors were told that the orders from above would cease once the approval was given.

In August 2018 i24News’s English and French channels went live on Israel’s HOT cable network.

However, the report said employees were then told to continue holding the softer line on Netanyahu as i24News then sought to launch a Hebrew-language channel as well. Efforts to obtain the Hebrew license have reportedly stalled amid the ongoing political stalemate in the country.

Democratic Union leader Nitzan Horowitz, at a press conference in Tel Aviv, August 12, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Horowitz said the report raised suspicions that positive coverage of the prime minister was used “to receive significant benefits” from Netanyahu.

“Such a connection between the prime minister and a senior figure with a significant interest requires immediate examination,” Horowitz wrote to Mandelblit.

The left-wing faction leader also highlighted the involvement of Communications Minister David Amsalem along with his predecessor Ayoub Kara in working toward garnering a license for i24News to broadcast a Hebrew channel in Israel.

“This detail also raises apparent suspicion of tainted and improper relations between the minister and the channel’s managers, in exchange for changing the channel’s line toward Netanyahu,” Horowitz wrote.

Efforts to obtain the license for a Hebrew channel reportedly included direct requests from the i24News owners to editors to tone down or refrain from covering Netanyahu’s criminal probes or stories that portrayed the premier’s family in a negative light, the report said.

Several guest analysts who took a more combative line against the Netanyahu family were blacklisted from further appearances and one show, which Melloul claimed had a leftist slant, was taken off the air entirely.

Horowitz also called on Mandelblit to look into an instance cited in the report in which a former Netanyahu aide, Odelia Carmon, was barred from future appearances on panels after she said that the premier had “no control” over his son Yair, amid a spate of his tweets critics blasted as Islamophobic.

According to several former i24News staffers cited by Haaretz, Melloul ordered that Carmon not be invited back, telling an editor that he had received a call from Yair Netanyahu himself in which the prime minister’s son yelled at him over her appearance.

i24News denied any claims of wrongdoing and pointed to a recent report in right-wing weekly B’sheva which accused it of being slanted to the left.

“The left sees the channel as right-wing and the right sees the channel as left-wing. [This] is the best evidence that i24News is a balanced media outlet that provides an equal and fair platform to all ends of Israeli politics, as well as to a variety of opinions and audiences from Israeli society,” it said in response to the Haaretz report.

The prime minister is facing indictment in three criminal probes, two of which surround the premier’s efforts to tilt media coverage in his favor.

In Case 2000, involving accusations Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth, Mandelblit will seek to charge the premier with fraud and breach of trust, while Mozes will be charged with bribery.

In Case 4000, widely seen as the most serious against the premier, Netanyahu is accused of having advanced regulatory decisions that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, in exchange for positive coverage from the Elovitch-owned Walla news site. In that case Mandelblit announced he intends to charge Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust, and both Netanyahu and Elovitch with bribery.

Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, castigated police and prosecutors after Mandelblit announced the charges, saying he would continue to lead Israel, claiming the cases were fabricated in order to oust him in a coup, and asserting that his investigators must be investigated by an independent panel.

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