Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday night walked back a statement put out by his Likud party the previous evening calling for a journalist to be jailed for an investigative report on a bribery case against the premier, saying he did not support throwing critical reporters in jail.
“Putting journalists in jail is absurd,” Netanyahu said in response to a question on the statement, which the prime minister had himself endorsed with a retweet Thursday morning.
After Wednesday’s broadcast of Channel 13’s investigate news program “HaMakor,” Likud issued a tweet accusing the network of failing to ask the party for comment or air its response to a report by journalist Raviv Drucker.
The tweet, which Likud said was its response to the report, included a video statement railing against Channel 13 and Drucker, accusing “fake 13 of censoring the truth.”
“Raviv Drucker is continuing this evening to carry out a criminal field trial against Prime Minister Netanyahu: obstructing court proceedings, threatening state witnesses, all with the goal of trying to tilt the opinion of the judges,” the party said.
According to Likud, the fact that authorities hadn’t arrested Drucker and “are allowing him to run wild with leaks and extortion of witnesses” boosted the claim that “the game is rigged” against Netanyahu, who also faces charges in two other cases.
“In a proper world Raviv Drucker would go to jail today for broadcasting criminal leaks and obstructing criminal proceedings,” the Likud statement said.
Despite his own retweeting, Netanyahu, speaking at a press conference Thursday evening, said the statement was nothing but “an unfortunate formulation by spokespeople that happens from time to time.”
He nonetheless went on to criticize Drucker for the report, even suggesting he indeed should be questioned by police.
“I am in favor of diversity and voicing opinions and criticism, but journalists cannot interfere with court proceedings and tamper with witnesses,” Netanyahu said. “These are things that need to be examined and investigated. Nobody is above the law — including journalists.”
In response to the original comments about Drucker, which on Thursday night were scrubbed from both the Likud’s and the prime minister’s twitter accounts, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and several of his coalition allies issued statements defending freedom of the press and saying the role of journalists is to scrutinize those in power.
“That’s how it’s been, that’s how it is now and that’s how it will be,” Gantz wrote on Twitter.
Journalistic associations and a good governance group also rebuked Likud and Netanyahu.
“In a proper democracy neither a prime minister nor anyone on his behalf issues threats of incarceration, explicit or implicit, against reporters, even if they dare to investigate suspicions relating to him personally,” the Israel Press Association said. “It is still the judicial system, and it alone, that decides on jail sentences.”
The Union of Journalists in Israel called the Likud response a “crossing of a red line” and said it could “encourage harm to the journalist, the media outlet he works for and the freedom of the press.”
The Movement for Quality Government expressed its support for Drucker and other journalists. “In a normal country a prime minister doesn’t threaten to put a journalist in jail,” the group said.
Drucker’s report centered on Case 4000, in which the premier is accused of approving regulatory moves benefiting the controlling shareholder of Bezeq telecoms in exchange for positive news coverage from the company’s Walla news site. Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in the case.
The program aired recordings of Bezeq’s controlling shareholder Shaul Elovitch and his wife, Iris, speaking with Ilan Yeshua, who was CEO of Walla.
In a recording from July 2015, Elovitch can be heard saying Netanyahu was doing many things for him, things “I wouldn’t believe… I feel I owe [him] all the time… and I’m not delivering.”
In another recording, Yeshua complains to Elovitch of being “a marionette” for Netanyahu and warns that news reports benefiting the Netanyahu family must be done “carefully” or management could face a revolt from the newsroom.
Shaul and Iris Elovitch each face bribery charges in the case. They deny wrongdoing.
Netanyahu, the Elovitches and Arnon Mozes — the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper who is charged with bribery in another case involving the premier — all appeared at the Jerusalem District Court last month for the start of trial proceedings.