Saturday, December 29, 2007

Israeli law and the media

A Knesset committee passed a law that is meant to protect the right of suspects against the inquisitorial functions of the media. According to this law, it is forbidden to publish the name of arrested suspects, or persons who are under investigation until they are brought to trial. This would supposedly spare the innocent from harmful leaks prior to their trial. The law was no doubt inspired by the spate of abortive investigations of public figures that ended in no conviction.
The most interesting and appalling of these was the investigation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over supposed favors that he had done to a friendly bank in its bid to buy the controlling share of a bank that was owned by the government. Police made dramatic raids. It was announced that the decision as to whether or not to prosecute Olmert would be published on the day he was leaving for the Annapolis conference. With some difficulty, authorities were persuaded that that was an inappropriate and inauspicious time. As it turns out, that was worse than not releasing the decision. Olmert went to Annapolis with the sword of investigation hanging over his neck.  As it turned out, the government never had any legal basis at all, because the friendly bank that Olmert had supposedly helped did not participate in the government bidding, and never wanted to buy a part of the Israeli bank! There could not have been any crime. It was apparently all a malicious invention.
This law has other aspects however, that have not been considered by the Israeli press. Israeli immigrants from the only workers and peasants state, the now defunct workers' paradise, surely understand the consequences of forbidding the release of arrest information. The same enlightened legal regimen prevailed in Argentina for a while. One day you see Carlos or Ivan, one day you do not. One day he might be standing at the podium of the Supreme Soviet, extolling the virtues of the revolution, and then he is gone. Nobody, not even his wife or children, may learn his fate for years. Ordinary citizens might learn of his arrest when they received in the mail replacement pages for the Soviet Encyclopedia, which replace the article about Ivan Ivanovich, formerly a Hero of the Soviet People and substitute for it a lengthy description of the Ivanovitch Kolkhoz in Western Siberia.    
If the Israel government is going to limit media freedom, perhaps they should investigate a different field. During the recent Lebanon war, the media played its part, not in raising public morale, but in spreading panic and demoralization. The same picture of a hysterical lady, crying as she entered a taxi with her baby to flee the north, was shown over and over. Nothing at all had happened to this lady or to her baby. They were both alive and well and unharmed.  The fact that the footage was shown repeatedly indicates that the media did not have sufficient material to promote hysteria -- the hysteria didn't exist.
In a democracy, we cannot and should not force the media to show everyone as paragons of calm and national solidarity. However, media should have the common sense not to act as enemy agents and deliberately spread panic and despair where there are none. 
On his weekly radio program, Yosef (Tomi) Lapid gave further examples of how the media try to make things even worse than they really are. Examples (not verbatim - but close):
Interview with the father of a fallen son:
Interviewer: How does it feel to lose a son in a superfluous war?  
Subject:  It was not superfluous. It was necessary to defend the state.
Interviewer: You have two other sons. Are you going to allow them to go to the army to get killed for nothing?
Subject: I believe they will be safe.
Interviewer: I wish I could believe you are right!
Interview with father of captive son:
Interviewer: Do you miss your son?
Subject: Of course.
Interviewer: Why do you miss your son?
Subject: Because he is my son.
Interviewer: And don't you feel neglected because the Minister of Defense is doing so little to get him back?
Subject: I am sure he is doing all he can.
Interviewer: And if it was his own son, wouldn't he do more?
Subject: I don't think so.
Can we imagine the parallel interview taking place in Gaza? Jihad Jihad of the Islamic Jihad has just had his Qassam rocket launching career cut short by a missile fired from a helicopter of the evil Zionists. Izzedin el Majnoun, a reporter of al Hayat al Jadida, is interviewing Umm Jihad (mother of Jihad):
Interviewer: How does it feel to lose a son in a superfluous war?  
Umm Jihad: Alhamdillah (praise be to Allah), it is Fard (a religious duty) to fight the occupation. Jihad is a Shahid (martyr) in the Jihad! Surely he is getting his reward of 72 virgins in paradise.
Interviewer: With so many martyrs, are you sure there are enough virgins?
Umm Jihad: Allah Akbar (Allah is great) - he can provide virgins for all the martyrs, just as it is written in the Quran.
Interviewer: Do you have other sons?
Umm Jihad: Alhamdillah, I have 8 other sons.   
Interviewer: And do you intend to allow them to join the resistance?
Umm Jihad: I am proud to give my sons to the cause of Filastin.
Interviewer: And if they die?
Umm Jihad: Then they will be safe with Allah!
Interviewer: Let's hope it is so!
Umm Jihad: What are you? A Yahudi bin kalb (Jewish son of a dog?)
We can imagine the fate of poor Mr. Majnoun if that interview were to be published.
Apart from the attempt to deliberately spread demoralization, there is something profoundly inhuman about intruding on the private grief of citizens who have sacrificed so much, belittling their sacrifice and implying that it was for naught. 
I am all for freedom of all kinds. Even though we are fighting a war, we must not sacrifice basic freedoms. But if the press has the right to conduct interviews of that type, then private citizens should have the right to shoot interviewers of that type. After all, if freedom of the press is a higher value than morale, higher than respect for the private grief of parents and the security of the state, then surely the brave reporters will be willing to risk their lives for it. 
Ami Isseroff  

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