Israel Pulse

A song of praise: Netanyahu’s court journalists

Article Summary
Over the years, and especially since the 2015 election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been striving to set up a more submissive, sycophantic Israeli press that praises everything he does.

After an inquiry and suspension lasting several days, it was reported Feb. 17 that journalist Erel Segal will be returning to his show "Kalman and Segal" on the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation Kan. The public channel announced, “Segal was notified that as a journalist working for public broadcasting, he is expected to maintain the journalistic code of ethics and standards.”

Segal’s suspension came as a result of his appearance in a propaganda video for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, alongside two other right-wing journalists, Yinon Magal and Shimon Riklin. Neither of those two men make any effort to hide their blind admiration for the prime minister. This particular video, which appeared on Netanyahu’s Twitter account Feb. 13, shows the three journalists singing Avihu Medina’s famous song “Praise Jerusalem,” together with Netanyahu. On social media, the video came to be known by the moniker, “Bibi [Netanyahu] and the Shofars [mouthpieces].”

There is not enough space here for a detailed account of how Segal, Yinon and Riklin became the modern-day equivalent of medieval town criers for Netanyahu’s public messages. As part of their alleged work as journalists, these three men serve as spokesmen of a sort, not only justifying but praising just about everything Netanyahu does, without the slightest hint of criticism. They had no criticism of the prime minister, when he dragged Israel into three successive election campaigns, or when he was indicted in district court. They believe that any criticism of Netanyahu is nothing more than the result of provocation by the media and the left, with the intent of removing the prime minister from power.

As usual, Netanyahu depicted the suspension of his minion Segal as another battle in the war between light and darkness. In Netanyahu’s mind, Segal was a casualty of the left, which is trying incessantly to defeat him. “At Kan they never show any sympathy, on the left they don’t have that. Nevertheless, he [Segal] was suspended. What a joke! It’s disgraceful!” said Netanyahu at an election rally. It is well known that Netanyahu is obsessed with the media. It was responsible for Case 2000 (allegedly plotting with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher for positive coverage) and Case 4000 (on Netanyahu’s ties with communication tycoon Shaul Elovitch), which led to his indictment for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Over the years, and especially since the 2015 election, he has been striving to install a more submissive, sycophantic Israeli press, which praises everything he does. He wants a press similar to the newspaper Yisrael Hayom (Israel Today), which was created for him by billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Often, that newspaper’s headlines toed in line with Netanyahu’s official talking points.

According to Netanyahu, any unflattering or critical reports in the mainstream media result from the glaring “hatred of the left.” Remarks such as this trickle down to his admirers and supporters, who are convinced that the mainstream media is conspiring with the left to bring Netanyahu down. When Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit decided to indict Netanyahu for committing grave offenses in three separate cases — as aforementioned, two of them involving the media — Netanyahu’s supporters argued that the attorney general was unable to withstand the intense pressure being applied by the media and the left.

Netanyahu’s persecution complex has led him to terrorize the Israeli press, with particular emphasis on electronic media. He cut off the flow of oxygen to Channel 10 because of the bold investigative reports of its journalists, particularly Raviv Drucker, who first uncovered the submarine scandal, as well as the scandal surrounding the gifts that Netanyahu received. Netanyahu responded by introducing changes to the regulatory structure of the commercial networks in an effort to terrorize them. Having no other choice, and out of a desire to ease the pressure being applied to their oxygen pipes, various media outlets began to employ a crew of reporters, who can only be considered “court journalists.” One of the most prominent of these is political activist Yaakov Bardugo, who is not a journalist at all but who was appointed to the position of political commentator for Army Radio. He sits in the studio every evening, praising the leader and attacking the leader’s rivals, in what can only be compared to government propaganda in a banana republic.

But even that is not enough for Netanyahu. It seems as if there is no way to satiate his hunger for deferential and ingratiating media. He is disgusted when the media does its job, and he has no qualms about lashing out against senior journalists. (For instance, see the January 2019 right-wing billboard campaign, “They will not decide,” targeting four journalists.) Concerns that certain journalists could be attacked physically are so severe that media outlets have been forced to hire special security services. Furthermore, Netanyahu considers almost every trip abroad to be “historic,” meaning that he has no problem reprimanding journalists who accompany him and demanding extensive coverage.

Now, with the singing of “Praise Jerusalem” and the feigned innocence of the performers — who claim that they were singing the praises of the Holy City and nothing more — Netanyahu and his court journalists have ratcheted their propaganda campaign up a notch. More than just making do with blind admiration, they are actually taking part in Netanyahu’s reelection campaign.

It happened completely by coincidence, but just before I finished writing this article, I took a walk in Tel Aviv, where I suddenly ran into Magal and Riklin. They had just shot another interview on the street for their show on the right-wing Channel 20. It is worth noting that this channel began as a niche outlet for shows about Jewish heritage. All that changed when Netanyahu granted them a license to broadcast news and current events. As soon as the two journalists saw me, they identified me as a representative of “the hostile and alienated left-wing media.” In the argument that broke out between us, Magal boasted that he was the only person to fight back against Netanyahu’s interference in the Walla website, when he was its senior editor. It is also worth noting that Magal is scheduled to testify in Netanyahu’s upcoming trial over Case 4000, i.e., the bribery case. “I was the only person to fight back against Netanyahu’s efforts to influence Walla,” he proudly told me, “and nevertheless, I still support him.” Riklin then added, “It is impossible to bridge the differences between us.”

How interesting! Even after Magal personally witnessed Netanyahu’s incessant efforts to destroy the Israeli media, he continued to praise him. Even worse, Magal ignored the indictment facing Netanyahu. That is how blind he has been. The "survey" that Magal and Riklin conducted on the street was intended to heap praise on Netanyahu just two weeks before the March 2 election. The two men wanted to show their viewers how wonderful life in Israel is, and how much the leftists in Tel Aviv love to complain, even though everything is great. Netanyahu’s admirers believe that he built up Israel and brought it to where it is today, as if there was nothing here before him. The logical conclusion to be drawn from this is that if Netanyahu fails to win the election, or if he is arrested, Israel itself could come crashing down.

As far as the media promoting Netanyahu is concerned, there is no incitement in Israel. There is no neglect or marginalization either, no divisiveness, no hatred of the other and no government corruption. As for what lies ahead on the political horizon and Israel’s future, everything is rosy and bright. Annexation of West Bank territories is the best thing for Israel — the stuff of dreams, if you will. Even if Netanyahu has said, “We will forever live by the sword,” his court journalists continue to cheer him on and sing his praises.

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Found in: Press freedom

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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