Keeping the Israeli press free – together

If independent journalism is going to survive, it needs the public to tip the scales.

Hebrew newspapers.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hebrew newspapers.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If anyone were interested in learning why Israeli journalism is declining, they would need to look no further than the pages of the newly published State Comptroller’s report. Spanning some 200 pages, the report extensively criticizes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Communications Ministry for consistently acting for the benefit of the Bezeq communications monopoly – intentionally restricting competition-inducing reforms in the communications market, and pushing for extremely lenient penalization of the corporation’s wrongdoings.
The social web between Netanyahu and Bezeq is easy to parse: Bezeq chairman Shaul Alovitch has long been a trusted friend of Netanyahu, while Bezeq itself holds ownership over Walla, one of Israel’s largest online news outlets. Needless to say, Walla refrains from criticizing Netanyahu in any shape or form.
As far as witnessing political ties eroding integrity in the Israeli media, this is a mere tip of an iceberg. As the infamous “Case 2000” story began circulating, we were exposed to secret negotiations allegedly held between Yediot Aharonot publisher Arnon Mozes and Prime Minister Netanyahu. These unprecedented, Sykes-Picot-esque talks negotiated the futures of two of Israel’s most prominent newspapers, along with the media portrayal of top Israeli politicians.
Over these past few months alone, Israelis have witnessed debilitating obstacles being put in the path of their fledgling public broadcasting corporation, and the exposure of several Israeli ministers purchasing favorable media coverage. This merits a bleak deduction: the “Case 2000” tapes are far more than a sensational headline, they are a harbinger of the rapidly diminishing freedom of the Israeli press.
Politicians, however, are far from the only threat looming over the virtue of the Israeli media. Corporate interests have continuously undermined public confidence in mainstream outlets, while social networks have catalyzed click-bait culture and ratings-oriented story curation. Meanwhile, investigative journalism, long considered the bedrock of the entire journalistic culture, has been overshadowed by these more lucrative commercial undertakings.
It is not surprising then, to learn that Israel’s press freedom rating plummeted during 2016 to “partly free” status, meaning Israeli journalists operate under more constraints than their counterparts in Namibia or Papua New Guinea.
Not all is lost, however. In recent years, Israel has witnessed a substantial surge in independent media initiatives attempting to confront the influence of political and commercial forces on the mainstream media.
One of these initiatives is my own: the Israeli Fund for Independent Journalism (IFIJ), a collective fund that promotes public-participation journalism. As opposed to the top-down operating methods of the traditional media, the IFIJ model gives readers significant powers; they are encouraged to submit ideas for topics worthy of journalistic investigation and vote for their peers’ suggestions in online polls. These democratic, decentralized procedures allow the public to fill the roles of both publisher and editor in the newsroom, and keep us oriented toward pursuing investigations which hold substantial public value.
Nowhere was the effect of this democratization clearer than in our first investigative project.
Published in 2016, our piece exposed confidential obligations made by the Israeli delegation to the TISA international trade negotiations, an issue receiving effectively no media coverage at the time.
After the details of these negotiations were released, TISA became a prominent topic in public debate, causing mainstream news outlets to pick up on the subject as well, and prompting the Knesset to hold a meeting of its Economic Committee to discuss the content of the piece.
The impact of a small-scale independent project like ours, in terms of media coverage and public support, demonstrates how relevant independent journalism can be when operating in a centralized, quid pro quo media landscape such as Israel. By opening the journalistic and editorial processes to the public, we effectively circumvented a vast cobweb of political and commercial interests, which have long been threatening the lifeblood of Israeli democracy. If grassroots models such as ours were to become commonplace, it could have a profound impact on the way the Israeli press operates – and the topics it chooses to avoid.
In a 1974 interview, the writer Hannah Arendt said, “the moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. A people that can no longer trust the press is deprived of its ability to think [...] and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”
It doesn’t take more than a casual glance at the news to see that we are witnessing a time of great change.
Proponents of journalistic integrity and political-corporate interests are arm-wrestling to determine the nature of this change, and unfortunately, the latter seem to have the upper hand. I ask you to choose sides. Independent journalism needs the public to tip the scales.
The writer is the director of The Israeli Fund for Investigative Journalism (IFIJ).