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Journalists fear for safety as Netanyahu ups war on media

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attacks on the media are creating a climate that threatens journalists' lives.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen on monitors before the evening news bulletin at Channel 10's control room in Jerusalem November 18, 2015. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo - RTX2SI5L

An Israeli posing as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak posted a recording of a phone call on his Facebook page in which he played a practical joke on the journalist Amnon Abramovich. In the Aug. 10 post, the impersonator, Yossi Vider, promised Abramovich a scoop in the form of a statement that Barak planned to run for Labor Party leader. In the process, Vider drew the veteran commentator into a conversation about the need to end Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s grip on power. Abramovich, who claims that he knew the conversation was a practical joke, played along with Vider. Right-wing activists seized the opportunity to charge that Abramovich has revealed his true colors — a non-objective journalist with a clear agenda of bringing down the prime minister.

This response was not unexpected, of course, but that of Netanyahu was even more dumbfounding. The prime minister shared the clip on his Facebook page, which has about 2 million followers and is considered the most important and most influential Facebook page in Israel. His sharing the recording unleashed a wave of mudslinging and curses against Abramovich on the social networks. He has been labeled a radical left winger, a self-hating troublemaking Jew and a traitor.

This was not the first time that Abramovich, one of the most high-level and experienced television commentators in Israel, has been subjected to incitement and hatred. Three years ago, during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, Channel 2 broadcast from a special studio opposite Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv. A group of right-wing activists gathered near Abramovich’s studio to boo and shout insults at him, including calling him a “traitor.”

Abramovich is an Israeli war hero, who, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, was severely burned on several parts of his body. He received a Citation medal. These “minor details” do not move his detractors. Someone is inciting the public against him. Abramovich is not, however, alone.

A murky wave of incitement is sweeping through Israel. It is aimed at journalists and is often accompanied by threats. About two weeks ago, on July 29, it could have ended very badly. Gilad Shalmor, a Channel 2 commentator, was covering riots in Jaffa when he was forced to run for his life to escape an incited mob of Arab Israelis who beat him. Shalmor's injuries required his hospitalization.

A few months ago, Or Heller, military correspondent for Channel 10 News, received explicit threats, warning that he would be eliminated if he failed to stop criticizing Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier who shot an incapacitated Palestinian man who had attacked other soldiers in Hebron last year. Raviv Drucker, a journalist known for his sharp criticisms of the prime minister, has in the past needed personal protection. Gai Peleg often reports on investigations against the prime minister, and on Aug. 12 he was surprised to discover that a photo of his wife and their four young children, which appeared on the family's private Facebook page, had been posted on a page belonging to a right-wing activist with the caption, “We bless them with what they hope will happen to the Netanyahu family, and even twice that.”

Many other journalists report having been subjected to various threats, curses and other types of verbal violence, usually from right-wing activists dissatisfied with the way media outlets cover Netanyahu and the police investigations against him. It should be noted, however, that the attempted lynching of Shalmor was actually connected to ultra-nationalist incitement by Arab Israelis. Regardless, one way or another, journalism has become an endangered and dangerous profession in Israel. It is not just a result of economic problems, with several media outlets folding. Now, journalists’ personal security is threatened.

Many pin responsibility for the current atmosphere on Netanyahu. The collision-course relationship between Netanyahu and large segments of the Israeli media is nothing new, but in recent years, primarily since his 2015 electoral victory, the situation has steadily worsened.

Netanyahu has accused the Israeli media of an endless list of alleged transgressions and does not hesitate to ruthlessly and personally attack media outlets and even individual journalists. On Aug. 9, at a Likud rally in support of the prime minister in Tel Aviv, he accused the media and the left of conducting an “obsessive and unprecedented [witch] hunt with the goal of carrying out a government coup.” No wonder some among the applauding crowd waved posters proclaiming, “Gai Peleg is a black widow.” Many in the crowd boisterously and noisily expressed negative opinions and anger toward the media.

Of course, one must keep things in perspective. The chances are quite low that Israel will be subjected to the attacks on the media like those ongoing in Turkey (at least in the near future). Journalists in Israel are not arrested due to their opinions, though there are some who have been fired due to their political stances or forced to fight for their livelihood because they have been critical of Netanyahu. Israel is a real democracy, and its immune system is still functioning, despite intense attempts by the government to weaken it.

Nevertheless, the status and position of journalists has been deteriorating. Large swathes of the population have begun to brand them as subversive elements at best or “enemies of the nation” at worst. It is becoming dangerous to be a journalist at a political gathering of the right.

Netanyahu, who incites against the media on a daily basis, disavows all responsibility for this worrisome phenomenon. From his point of view, the media has only itself to blame for losing the nation’s trust and confidence because they serve a private agenda and are conducting a crusade against him. It is Netanyahu’s democratic right to hold this or any other opinion. Nevertheless, in an era in which the media has lost its monopoly on news, and the people themselves have the ability to disseminate information to the masses — the most popular site on the internet is the prime minister’s Facebook page — it is not clear why Netanyahu continues to obsess over a “leftist media.”

Just as he tried to renounce responsibility ex post facto for the incitement that swept Israel before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, so Netanyahu will try to wash his hands of responsibility if and when in the near future a journalist in Israel is harmed for doing his job. As in 1995, Netanyahu is still willing to take that risk.

As noted, Netanyahu became prime minister after Rabin’s assassination. These days, what Netanyahu wants is to remain prime minister. The path to this goal involves continued, daily skirmishes with the media, which he has painted as his own modern “demon” to the applause of the masses.

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