Between Self-censorship and Ben-Gvir’s Lawsuits: This Is the New, Dark Future of Israeli Media

Investigative journalism in Israel is a disappearing genre, senior reporters and academics say. And as Netanyahu’s far-right team digs in, reporters mull self-censorship

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A control room at Kan 11's studios in Israel.
A control room at Kan 11's studios in Israel.Credit: Moti Milrod
עידו דוד כהן - צרובה
Ido David Cohen
עידו דוד כהן - צרובה
Ido David Cohen

“Self-censorship in the media is like a gas leak – a colorless and odorless substance that gradually spreads, and by the time it’s discovered, everybody is suffocating,” says Prof. Zvi Reich, the head of the Communications Studies Department at Ben-Gurion University. “Not invisible are the reasons for it: the slander, the ugly campaigns, the attacks on journalists on social media. When the medium is under attack, important content doesn’t reach us, and that’s serious.”

Since the November 1 general election and the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government, the term “self-censorship” has become a buzzword. Some journalists have engaged in it or are warning about it, while others deny its existence.

“Every Israeli journalist imposes self-censorship,” says journalists’ union chief Nurit Canetti, an editor and anchorwoman at Army Radio. “Everybody fears that if he says something in a broadcast or writes a word in the wrong place on a sensitive subject, the whole world will attack him. Anybody who says otherwise is lying. All journalists can sense when there’s a direct or indirect threat to their job or peace of mind.”

Self-censorship is an elusive phenomenon; it’s not clear what its most blatant expression is. “The question isn’t whether a person is expressing political opinions but whether he’s doing the investigative work,” says Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. “There’s almost no burrowing in garbage cans, or tackling of explosive issues.”

Raviv Drucker, a journalist on Channel 13 TV.Credit: Tomer Applebaum

Raviv Drucker, a journalist on Channel 13 TV, notes the dearth of coverage of issues considered unpopular. “Nobody wants to hear about the occupation, and some programs don’t host Arabs because the assumption is that nobody wants to see them.” He says that when he did a piece on United Arab List chief Mansour Abbas for the investigative news program “Hamakor,” “some people warned me, ‘It’s death.’”

Reich notes “the spiral of silence” – a term in communications studies: You realize you're in the minority, so you keep silent. “That means that self-censorship will work strongly on the left and on journalists,” he says.

Nobody wants to hear about the occupation, and some programs don’t host Arabs because the assumption is that nobody wants to see them.

But Kalman Liebeskind of the daily Maariv and the Kan public broadcaster believes that self-censorship isn't plaguing Israel. “All the mainstream channels – 11, 12 and 13 – are in full-time protest against the government’s moves,” he says.

Self-censorship is also one of the values examined by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders in its annual index of press freedom. Israel is in 86th place out of 180 countries, one notch below Hungary. Problems keeping Israel down include the travails of Palestinian journalists, economic centralization and political interference.

The tycoons’ interests

Already in 1968, Prof. Hillel Nossek and Haim Frenkel used the term “self-censorship.” They say that in the years before the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israeli journalists had information on the army’s internal debate about the Bar-Lev Line near the Suez Canal. But these journalists didn’t publish, because of their admiration and/or fear of Israeli army officers.

And Limor Livnat, Netanyahu’s culture minister from 2009 to 2015, used the term about a decade ago. “I’m calling on all of you to engage in self-censorship. You’re living in a dreamworld. The time has come for some soul-searching,” she wrote to the artists’ associations in light of the Oscar nominations for the documentaries “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers” that criticized the defense establishment.

There’s almost no burrowing in garbage cans, or tackling of explosive issues.

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.Credit: No credit

“This phenomenon definitely existed in the past too due to patriotism, state security and ties with the government, and of course for economic reasons,” says journalist and former Labor lawmaker Miki Rosenthal. “For most of the controlling shareholders in Israel’s newspaper world, the media isn’t some ethical stance, it’s something required to help with their other businesses. Journalists immediately understand the owners' interests. Because these people are the masters of the country, tycoons who influence the public, a disturbing censorship is created. The media rarely covers their interests.”

According to Rosenthal, this problem worsened in the ‘90s with the end of collective labor agreements. Before that, he says, “The unions not only took care of the journalists' salaries, they also protected them professionally. When I had a problem I could complain to my union, tell it I was being forced to write that white is black, and the organization would stand behind me. Today the journalist is alone against the publisher. That’s a painful fact that I assume makes journalists less courageous.”

Shwartz Altshuler of the Israel Democracy Institute mentions the centralization processes that began in the ‘90s. “The moment there aren’t many players in the field, journalists have no alternatives that can rescue them. Let’s say you leave a media organization with great fanfare and say, ‘I’m sticking to my values.’ Where will you go?”

Kalman Liebeskind of the daily Maariv and the Kan public broadcaster.

She notes how the media business has been battered over the past decade as the advertising market has shrunk. “You can see the plummeting of the journalists’ professionalism,” Shwartz Altshuler says.

“You don’t need an education, you don’t need experience, the salary is low, there’s no tenure. A journalist says to himself: ‘Who knows where I’ll be working tomorrow? There’s no time to stick to principles, so I’ll simply do what they tell me.’”

'Is it worth the effort?'

So-called SLAPPs for discouraging free speech – strategic lawsuits against public participation – and libel suits against journalists are other reasons stoking self-censorship.

According to Shwartz Altshuler, as long as there is no fund for compensating media companies and journalists suffering SLAPPs, few will take risks. An experienced journalist like Ilana Dayan, who has a Ph.D. in law, can do an investigation on far-rightist Itamar Ben-Gvir’s alleged concealing of evidence and incitement of the “hilltop youth” to commit hate crimes against Palestinians. She has an easier time than others against something like the 1-million-shekel ($296,000) lawsuit by this serial litigant, who is now national security minister. It’s less dangerous to invite him into the TV studio, on his own terms. The mutual addiction between the media and Ben-Gvir started long before he became a minister.

Everyone with whom Haaretz spoke for this article agrees that investigative journalism has significantly eroded in Israel over the past 20 years or so. “The editorial boards don’t have enough money for experienced senior journalists with the time to take on such stories, which require a great deal of patience,” Drucker says. “It’s not that there’s a decision from above to prevent investigations.”

Canetti of Army Radio adds: “Editorial boards make their own judgments and think, ‘Jaw-dropping investigations only bring a 5 percent rating. Is it worth the effort?’”

A mutual addiction: Far-right politician and Minister of National Security of Israel, Itamar Ben-Gvir, being interviewed on KAN 11.Credit: Screenshot KAN 11

Rosenthal, the former Labor lawmaker, hosted the investigative programs “Bulldog” and “Bulldozer,” and created the film “The Shakshuka System” on the relationship between big money and government. “Investigative journalism is a disappearing genre and is being replaced by journalism that most of the time ingratiates itself with the public instead of serving it,” he says.

“It makes no difference whether poor journalism or a change in the public’s values are the reason people are less interested in knowing the truth. If Sisyphean work is of no value, and when you write on Twitter that somebody is despicable you’re immediately quoted, why work hard?”

Eran Kamin, a fraud investigator for the police, told the investigative news program “Uvda” that since the police launched their probes against Netanyahu in the second half of the last decade, the police have been afraid and haven’t investigated public corruption. “In the same way that the police’s investigative unit is paralyzed, so is the media,” he says.

As Shwartz Altshuler puts it, “They think twice before touching the most sensitive issue for politicians.”

What is public opinion on this issue? Already in 2013 a poll showed that a large percentage of Israeli Jews expected self-censorship, at least on political and security issues. Only 55 percent of respondents agreed that the media should publish reliable information on unethical government behavior regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the question of immoral conduct by the army, this number falls to 48 percent.

Investigative journalist Ilana Dayan.Credit: Screenshot Keshet 12

“If we had no left wing, we would be like the Soviet Union, where the absolute majority wanted censorship,” Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal of Tel Aviv University said about this survey published on the website The Seventh Eye.

Canetti adds: “In 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, they crucified the media for its preoccupation with the army’s lack of preparedness, as is if the media were to blame. You don’t want to hear that your country does things wrong.”

But Shwartz Altshuler isn’t sure that such opposition from the public results in self-censorship. “There’s a paradox,” she says.

“People say that they don’t want criticism of the army, but in the end, whatever is published resonates widely. Israelis really love to consume news, to watch – and get angry.”

In the past decade Netanyahu brought his conflict with the media to a head, especially after his victory in the 2015 election and his stint as communications minister from 2014 to 2017. He’s on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust for alleged transgressions during part of that stretch.

Ultra-Orthodox journalist Israel Frey. Was accused of allegedly inciting to terrorism and violence.Credit: Moti Milrod

“Relations between the media and politics became venomous, with attacks against journalists. It reached the point where journalist Amnon Abramovich was told in 2016: ‘It’s a shame you weren’t burned to death,’” Shwartz Altshuler says, referring to the TV news commentator who was badly burned while fighting in the Yom Kippur War.

Canetti adds that “the incessant bullying during election campaigns, when the media is attacked, has ... contributed to journalists’ attempt to be extremely balanced, to the point of fearing to ask tough questions.”

But Liebeskind of Maariv and Kan disagrees. “The media is doing everything possible to be a partner to the demonstrations against the government, to oppose its appointments and ministers, to oppose Justice Minister Yariv Levin,” he says. “Is that self-censorship? Can more than that be done?”

Populism flourishes

A key contribution to self-censorship has come from the most uncensored of platforms, social media. “It has provided a wonderful tool for journalists, especially for the stars, but it has also become hugely personal, disgusting and very hurtful,” Shwartz Altshuler says.

She says the results affect everyone “when you know that whatever you say in a newspaper or on television will lead to a shit storm,” like the experience of Channel 12 host Rina Matsliah: a flood of calls to her phone after she criticized the ultra-Orthodox community’s behavior during the COVID crisis.

On the other hand, some journalists see advantages in such a cooling effect by social media, when someone who eschews moderation is punished by the public.

Twitter, for example, enables exposure to opinions that are totally unpopular with the public, even leading to clashes between the journalist who tweeted the opinion and the employer. That happened to Israel Frey on DemocraTV after he called a Palestinian who planned an attack “a hero” because he was targeting soldiers, not civilians.

The new Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Frey was arrested and interrogated on suspicion of incitement to terror, following a complaint by Shai Glick of the group Betzalmo, which calls itself “a human rights organization in the spirit of Jewish ethical traditions.”

Hardly a day goes by without an organization receiving a demand by Glick for censorship or dismissal. He recently chalked up a success against Kan's ethics committee by bumping Arab-Israeli attorney Amal Oraby off his slot on a news program due to his tweets.

Meanwhile, new Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi, who since 2019 has submitted bills to privatize or close Kan, told Israel's “Meet the Press” that he would strive to cut over half of the public broadcaster's budget in the next Economic Arrangements Law that accompanies the state budget. Several Kan reporters say that even before his appointment he tried to silence people, while others believe that there is no self-censorship at Kan.

The corporation’s new director general, Golan Yochpaz, tweeted: “Cutting hundreds of millions from the corporation’s budget means only one thing – closing the Public Broadcasting Corporation. As an independent broadcasting organization, the corporation will resolutely carry on with its efforts despite the threats to its very existence.”

Channels 12 and 13 are also in Karhi’s sights, as he revealed in the past two weeks when he called the commercial channels the “propaganda channels.” These stations have improved their ratings by becoming popular with the majority; for example, panel members on current-events shows are no longer chosen for journalistic reasons only.

Journalists say that self-censorship is also seen in TV channels’ inviting of a “Bibi-ist” onto the panels, as has become the custom on the Friday evening newsmagazine “Ulpan Shishi,” and even more on so on “Shishi” with Ayala Hasson. Channel 13 reporters are disappearing from there one after the other.

“When the sword is dangling over your head, you make different kinds of decisions,” Shwartz Altshuler says. “For the commercial media, it can be the sword of the advertising market and of regulation. At the Public Broadcasting Corporation, if the prime minister decides to cut the news department's budget, lots of journalists will be in danger of dismissal. Doesn’t that get people to change their ways?”

Reich of Ben-Gurion University says it’s impossible to determine who is more exposed to self-censorship, public or commercial media. He suggests his own criterion: “You have to be afraid at places that are weak economically or administratively, and at those where the editors lack integrity – the types who ‘go with the flow.’ The combination of weakness and going with the flow is the worst.”

Many believe that Army Radio was badly weakened this way. “One reason for the flourishing of populism is that it’s easy to get people to hate the media, because few people understand it as an agent for producing facts and discovering the truth,” Reich says.

“That’s also true of the legal system, historians and intelligence services. And, surprise, surprise, authoritarian regimes settle accounts with all of them. They want to be the only disseminators of the picture of reality.”

The Erdogan method
In Turkey, the takeover of the media by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began about a decade ago when his government started targeting advertising. The decline in advertising money at papers that didn’t support him was designed to slant coverage; from there it was a short path to shutdowns and takeovers of media outlets.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán took control of public broadcasting and ensured the takeover of the commercial channels by tycoons close to him. In a 2020 study, a Hungarian journalist said: “For journalists in the public media, self-censorship is a burning issue. They don’t have freedom to report whatever they like or put the stories in context. They probably sense their own ethical or professional biases, but they continue because they realize that this what is expected of them.”

A 2017 report for the EU's European Council, which surveyed about 1,000 newspapers from 47 European countries, found that papers exercise a great deal of self-censorship. Around 33 percent of respondents said articles had been published based on unjustified interference (or fear of interference), while 30 percent reported a “lowering of the tone” on sensitive subjects. Also, articles were presented in less controversial ways.

“In Israel there is investigative work, and there are opinionated and independent journalists – and this is a hard time for them. Editors-in-chief have to be proactive and provide journalists with oxygen so that they can take a deep breath and do their work,” Reich says.

“That means mapping out who is under attack, not continuing with business as usual, and having social workers help out if necessary. Otherwise we’ll have journalists with PTSD walking around here. In the meantime, we haven’t reached a situation where investigative reporters fall from balconies, as in Russia.”

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