Netanyahu trialWarm coverage of Sara Netanyahu was pushed, editor testifies

Walla news chief: ‘Everything related to the Netanyahus needed to be approved’

Michal Klein takes stand in Case 4000 trial, in which former PM accused of benefiting business interests of Bezeq shareholder in exchange for positive press

Walla News Department head Michal Klein arrives for her testimony in the trial against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the Jerusalem District Court, October 18, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Walla News Department head Michal Klein arrives for her testimony in the trial against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the Jerusalem District Court, October 18, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Testifying at the trial of Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, a former senior editor at the Walla news site said that during her time in the news department, anything published related to the Netanyahus required the approval of her superior, who would block negative coverage of the then-prime minister’s family.

“When I was appointed head of the news department, I understood from [then Walla CEO] Ilan [Yeshua] that everything related to the Netanyahu family needed to be approved by him,” Michal Klein said during her testimony in so-called Case 4000.

In the case, one of three against the former premier, Netanyahu is accused of abusing his powers when he served as both prime minister and communications minister from 2014 to 2017. Netanyahu is charged with illicitly and lucratively benefiting the business interests of Bezeq telecom’s controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, in exchange for positive coverage on the Bezeq-owned Walla news website.

Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, while Elovitch and his wife have been charged with bribery. All three defendants deny wrongdoing.

In response to questioning from prosecution attorney Amir Tabenkin, Klein recalled that shortly after becoming news department chief, she “started receiving press releases from [then Netanyahu spokesman] Nir Hefetz, most of them related to Sara Netanyahu, and was told when they were to go up [on the site] and for how long.

“I would argue with Ilan [Yeshua] quite a bit. There were stages when I said I was choosing my battles against Ilan. For example, I did not argue about a positive item on Sara Netanyahu. Why? Because I thought it did less damage than censoring a negative news item,” Klein continued.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Nir Hefetz, left, arrive at the weekly cabinet meeting held in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, December 13, 2009. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

In his own court appearances that lasted several months, Yeshua testified to being under similar pressures from Netanyahu aides.

“Ilan would say, ‘You know it makes me sick,’ that ‘it’s very hard for me,’ ‘We are all in the same boat’ — statements of this kind. He made us feel that he was also in the  predicament, perhaps as a way to calm the objections,” Klein said.

The former senior editor also recalled censorship on generally negative articles that did not even have to do with Netanyahu directly.

“The first incident I remember took place when I coordinated reporters ahead of the 2013 elections,” Klein said.

Former CEO of the Walla news website Ilan Yeshua arrives at the Jerusalem District Court for his testimony in the corruption trial of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, June 16, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We were on the news desk and we were raising ideas about the poverty report. We were collecting some responses and uploading a political follow-up article. Shortly afterward, we were told it needs to come down,” she said.

Asked why she remained in the post if she felt uncomfortable with the restraints that were placed on the news division, Klein maintained that she was making the best out of a bad situation, that whoever would replace her would face the same limitations, that she needed to support her family and that she still saw value in the work Walla was doing.

The trial officially began in May 2020, but has been plagued by a series of delays and months of breaks. The evidentiary phase of the trial kicked off in April of this year. Netanyahu himself has largely been absent from the courtroom.

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