Last week, Israeli prosecutors charged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with three counts of corruption. At the core of the indictment is an accusation that Netanyahu accepted bribes in the form of positive press coverage (or more precisely, reduction in negative coverage). In exchange, Netanyahu allegedly advanced the interests of two powerful Israeli media organizations.
The unprecedented designation by prosecutors of press coverage as a currency for bribery has far-reaching implications on the freedom of the press, and could curtail journalists’ ability to report the truth.
For example, the morning after Netanyahu’s indictment, several prominent journalists and editors called for Netanyahu’s immediate resignation, thereby creating public pressure for his removal. If Netanyahu resigns, and one of those journalists later receives some sort of benefit from the new government, such as an exclusive interview, then according to last week’s precedent, that journalist could be exposed to charges of bribery.
Another challenge to freedom of the press that arose from last week’s indictment relates to journalists’ complex, multi-layer relations with their sources — a process that certainly includes a lot of give and take. A journalist’s interaction with sources, including politicians, is now suddenly under scrutiny — criminal scrutiny! With such restrictions, it is possible that many journalists’ headline-grabbing exposures, such as Watergate, would have not been uncovered.
There are those in Israel who dismiss this by arguing that the indictment has nothing to do with freedom of the press, but rather with Netanyahu’s corruption. For decades, alas, Israeli prosecutors and investigators sought to find wrongdoing by Netanyahu and his family. “This is the best they could come up with,” explained one commentator about the prime minister’s indictment. Decades of searching for misconduct now resulting in such a bizarre charge could paradoxically be interpreted by some as a testament to Netanyahu’s integrity. Indeed, many around the world were quick to condemn the Israeli prosecutor’s action. For example, Mark Levin tweeted: “I’ve carefully reviewed these charges and they’re outrageous. This is an assault on freedom of the press and the investigation was corrupt.”
But there is also another side to the story. Israel is a hub for global innovations: Turning air into water, saving lives through medical breakthroughs, generating cutting-edge ideas that alter long-held beliefs. In this realm, perhaps the revolutionary treatment of press coverage by Israeli prosecutors, who are revered around the legal world for their high professionalism, awakens the issue of the power of the press and brings it for debate in the global public square.
After all, the media shape people’s minds. Why should it not be held accountable? Should journalists and media outlets be investigated about what really motivates their coverage? For example, the BBC, which influences millions of British citizens, has long been perceived to have a positive bias toward the European Union (EU) and to give negative coverage to the Brexit campaign. It was then revealed that the BBC has allegedly been the recipient of millions of Euros from the EU. Similar realities exist with other news outlets around the world. Some are open about their bias — and are even proud of it.
Decisions by journalists and editors can make or break the careers of politicians and influence the outcomes of elections. Nowhere is this more paramount than in the case of Netanyahu, who, along with his family, has been a subject of a smear campaign by the Israeli media for over 25 years now. The negative press has been so extreme that even Netanyahu’s arch-rival, Arab Joint List Knesset Member Ahmed Tibi, who was a close associate of PLO leader Yasser Arafat, came to Netanyahu’s defense in 2010. Tibi denounced what he labeled the “inhuman treatment” of Netanyahu’s wife. In an emotional speech from the podium of the Knesset, he stated: ”I will do whatever it takes to unseat you, but will never use attacks on your wife and family to do so.”
With media outlets deploying their enormous power to achieve their objectives, such as to unseat Netanyahu or to reject Brexit, perhaps Israeli prosecutors taking the lid off the sanctity of the freedom of the press should not be brushed off so quickly. Granted, there are other problematic aspects of Netanyahu’s indictment, such as the allegation of selective enforcement (many politicians received positive coverage, but none were indictment). Alan Dershowitz, for example, argued earlier this year that “to bring down a duly elected prime minister on the basis of an expansive and unprecedented application of a broad and expandable criminal statute, endangers democracy.”
No matter what one thinks about the merits of the indictment, one thing is clear: A historic debate about the freedom of the press has been launched.
Gol Kalev analyzes trends in Zionism, Europe and global affairs. For more of his articles: europeandjerusalem.com.