Netanyahu trial witness: I was pressured to give only positive news coverage of PM

Former CEO of Walla News testifies he was told that good coverage of Netanyahu was worth billions in government benefits to Walla’s parent company.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

In the third day of testimony at the corruption trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, a key witness in the case described in detail how he had been subject to intense pressure to ensure positive coverage of the prime minister in return to government favoritism worth “billions,” Walla news reported.

Netanyahu is accused of conspiring with Shaul Elovitch and his wife Iris to give only positive news coverage of Netanyahu on Walla, one of Israel’s most popular websites. Elovitch at the time was the major shareholder of the Bezeq communications company, the parent company of Walla.

According to the prosecution, Elovitch expected Netanyahu’s support for legislation that favored Bezeq in return for giving Netanyahu favorable coverage.

Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of the Walla news website, appeared on the witness stand for the third day in a row to give more details about how Elovitch and his family pressured him to change the news to favor the prime minister.

At the beginning of his testimony, Yeshua told the court the Elovitchs told him “that if there is hostile coverage then he (Netanyahu) may not sign and there will be billions in damage to Bezeq.”

In a transcript presented as evidence from a WhatsApp group in which Yeshua, Shaul Elovitch and Elovitch’s son, Or, exchanged messages, Or Elovitch criticized a negative article about Netanyahu in Walla and expressed concern that this would cause damage. Asked about previous conversations he had with Or, Yeshua said that after the 2015 election Elovitch wrote to him saying “congratulations on bringing him [Netanyahu] the election.”

According to Yeshua, Or expressed satisfaction and told him “now Bibi will do what they want.”

Asked if it was regular practice to completely remove news articles from the website, Yeshua replied it was very rare, and the prosecutor then asked him about a another conversation in January 2015 between Shaul Elovitch and Yeshua about an article on Walla critical of Netanyahu’s wife, Sara.

Elovitch wrote to Yeshua: “Take it down immediately, it will prevent ‘Yes’ approval” – referring to Bezeq’s bid for controlling interest of the Israeli satellite TV broadcaster Yes that required government authorization. A minute later, Elovitch wrote him: “I am killing you” and Yeshua replied, “I have ordered it to be taken down and deleted completely” and said he called the Walla editor and ordered him to remove it from the website.

Elovitch then wrote Yeshua: “It’s always better not to post than to take something down. Leave her alone, leave the dirt for Ynet,” – a competing news website.

However, in a damning piece of evidence at the time, Ynet noticed the change on the Walla website and wrote an article with the headline “Why did Walla remove an article about Sara Netanyahu?”

In further testimony, Yeshua said Elovitch repeatedly called saying he had talked with “him” and “the big one,” which Yeshua assumed meant Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has consistently denied the accusations against him and the testimony so far has not revealed any direct involvement by Netanyahu.

Wednesday’s court session received wide coverage in the Hebrew media. Walla covered the day’s testimony extensively with an article running over 15,000 words. It was more than seven times the size of the story on the same subject that appeared on the website of Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, traditionally perceived as being hostile to Netanyahu.