Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud Hannukah candle lighting, December 2, 2018.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/ MAARIV)
The Likud’s big Hanukkah event, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing a crowd of supporters, was much like any of the party’s other major events. Crowds waited in long security lines and schmoozed with Knesset members; pop music gave way to the Likud jingle as Netanyahu took the stage amid cheers.
But there is one thing that has become ubiquitous at Likud events in recent years that was not always present: harassment of the press.
In his address, Netanyahu detailed his defense against charges in Case 4000, in which the police recommended he be indicted for accepting a bribe in the form of favorable coverage in Walla! News – although, as he pointed out, several sources, including media watchdog The Seventh Eye, conducted studies and found that the website’s articles about Netanyahu were not particularly positive.
Netanyahu took that as an opportunity to rail against “hostile coverage” in Walla.
“They’re biased against me, and everybody knows it,” he said.
Netanyahu’s lament included police-press relations, like what he called the “endless flood of biased leaks,” coloring coverage from the start as an investigation that would inevitably bring an indictment.
The message was received by the attendees. When Netanyahu finished his speech, some swarmed the press area to harass journalists.
“You are the descendants of Antiochus,” one Likudnik bellowed, in a Hanukkah-themed insult. Television reporters received the brunt of the abuse, as they’re the most recognizable. But most of the journalists seemed concerned, and one, whose media outlet was singled out for criticism by Netanyahu, left in a hurry because she felt she was in danger. In fact, some of those shouting at journalists asked where she was.
One brave Likudnik confronted the harassers and was intimidated into backing off. Most ignored the melee, which continued even while former chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau lit the Hanukkah candles.
This was far from the first such occurrence at a Likud event.
Netanyahu’s invective against the media started long ago. Some have compared Netanyahu to US President Donald Trump, who has called journalists “enemies of the people.” They both seem to love the phrase “fake news.”
Netanyahu has been hostile to the media at least since his first term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999. Some of that hostility is justified – for example, the accusations that are dredged up each year that Netanyahu incited against former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin before Rabin’s assassination, when, in fact, he repeatedly exhorted the Right not to call Rabin a traitor. Netanyahu’s focus on the press led him to include in the coalition agreement that he has veto power over any new media-related policies.
With the advent of social media, Netanyahu repeatedly crosses a redline in his responses to critical press coverage. He has a tendency to attack specific journalists, such as in the lengthy response he issued after a report by award-winning journalist Ilana Dayan in 2016. He said that Dayan “does not have even a drop of professional integrity” and is “one of the leaders of the orchestrated attack against the prime minister… meant to topple the right-wing government.”
“Analysts on TV were delighted by the anti-Israel decision in the UN, almost as much as the Palestinian Authority and Hamas,” he wrote on Facebook another time.
It’s understandable for Netanyahu to want to defend himself when he’s criticized – this is why professional journalists give the topics of their reports the right to respond. Beyond that, it is reasonable for him to write on Facebook when he thinks a report is factually wrong.
But it would behoove Netanyahu to remember that a free press is the beating heart of democracy. Without a critical media, injustices in government, business, education and all other areas would be far more rampant. No one knows this better than Netanyahu himself. Case 4000, for which the police recommended he be charged with bribery and fraud, was first uncovered by the media.
Former British prime minister Winston Churchill, whom Netanyahu so admires, once said: “A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny… Where free institutions are indigenous to the soil and men have the habit of liberty, the press will continue to be the Fourth Estate, the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen.”
Netanyahu would be wise to heed Churchill’s words.
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