Rivlin defends free press amid Netanyahu onslaught

President calls journalism a ‘necessary institution’ of democracy, urges press to emulate his childhood journalist heroes: Jabotinsky and Superman

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

President Reuven Rivlin speaks at an Israel Press Council gathering in the city of Lod, on March 4, 2018. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin speaks at an Israel Press Council gathering in the city of Lod, on March 4, 2018. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

President Reuven Rivlin launched Sunday a vehement defense of journalism amid ongoing attacks​ on the Israeli media by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies.

Speaking at the first-ever gathering of the Israel Press Council, Rivlin said that “it’s possible and ​appropriate to criticize the media,” but that “we must not silence it and the dialogue that it creates, even when is critical of us, whether on the left or right.”

Battling year-long investigations into alleged corruption, some of which have been sparked by reports in the media of his alleged misconduct, Netanyahu has labeled negative reporting of him as “fake news,” and claimed that the media is engaged in “an obsessive witch hunt against me and my family with the goal of achieving a coup against the government.”

Without naming Netanyahu, Rivlin, at the conference in the central Israeli city of Lod,​ slammed such attacks as an affront to democracy.

​​”This is not an easy time to be part of the global guild of journalists. Journalists, journalism and news outlets are under attack. They are being accused of creating ‘fake news’ or biased reporting, and of a lack of diversity​,” he said.​

​Noting that his two childhood hero​e​s -​-​ Zeev Jabotinsky​, the pre-state founder of Revisionist Zionism,​ and superman​ — were journalists, Rivlin said that​ journalists today must strive to fulfill the expectation that they serve as a gatekeeper for Israeli democracy.

​”​It is important to remember that journalism and the media are a ​​necessary institution of our democracy and that, specifically because of that, there is an expectation from journalists to be supermen — upstanding, professional, trustworthy, ​principled​,” ​he concluded.​

Over the past two decades, Netanyahu has repeatedly tried to curb his many detractors in the media, which he says is biased against him. In 1999, while facing challenger Ehud Barak as incumbent prime minister, Netanyahu famously derided media coverage of him, leading Likud members in a chant, “They are a-f-r-a-i-d.”

He has long eschewed press conferences and interviews with Israeli journalists, and has publicly called out specific media outlets and reporters for stories he disliked. But Netanyahu’s apparent animosity has grown more intense in the year since US President Donald Trump was elected and, like the American leader, he has recently started referring to the press as “fake news.”

At a number of boisterous rallies held recently in response to media reports and public protests over his alleged corruption, he has lashed out at the media, saying that “the fake news industry is at its peak” and accusing it of “an obsessive witch hunt against me and my family.”

Netanyahu has also targeted individual reporters. He took one newsman to court for reporting that Sara Netanyahu had kicked her husband out of the car on a busy highway in a fit of pique. Last year, after acclaimed investigative TV journalist Ilana Dayan reported on mistreatment of the prime minister’s staff, she read out on the air a six-minute rebuke from Netanyahu in which he called her a “left-wing extremist” and slammed her credentials.

Netanyahu’s attacks on the media have intensified in recent months as corruption probes, many including allegations that he tried to manipulate the media, against him have gained steam.

On Friday, Netanyahu and his wife were questioned for several hours over suspicions that Shaul Elovitch, chief shareholder of telecommunications giant Bezeq, ordered the Walla news site, which he owns, to grant fawning coverage to the Netanyahus in exchange for the prime minister’s advancement of regulations benefiting him.

Officials involved in the probe have reportedly said that Netanyahu will be hard-pressed to explain away the “concrete” suspicions and “solid” evidence against him in that case, Hadashot TV news reported. They said suspicions against Netanyahu in the investigation are more serious than those ascribed to him in two previous cases, in which police have recommended that the prime minister be indicted for a series of serious corruption charges including bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

In Case 1000, Netanyahu and his wife are suspected of receiving illicit gifts from billionaire benefactors, amounting to some NIS 1 million ($282,000) worth of cigars and champagne from the Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan and Australian resort owner James Packer in return for certain benefits.

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.

The prime minister has also been linked to another case, dubbed Case 3000, which involves suspicions that state officials were paid bribes to influence a decision to purchase four patrol boats and three Dolphin-class submarines costing a total of 2 billion euros from German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp, despite opposition to the deal from the Defense Ministry. Netanyahu himself is expected to be called in to testify in the case, though he has so far not been named a suspect.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing in all the cases.

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