Many police investigations in Israel are conducted under gag orders that prevent the public from hearing information of vital public importance. Recently, gag orders have been issued on cases that provoke vast media interest. These injunctions have been granted by magistrate's courts, based on a law that allows for discretion to prevent damage to an investigation.
For several years now, the police have rushed to secure injunctions even when they weren't necessary, and hesitated to remove them when they were no longer needed. The magistrates, for their part, easily comply with the police's requests, ignoring Supreme Court rulings under which freedom of expression and the press must not be impeded barring convincing proof of a grave danger to other vital interests.
The fact that the police find it convenient to carry out their investigations against the backdrop of a silent media does not justify infringing the public's right to receive information on important events as they occur.
In the past, the Knesset has received information indicating that the police were too quick to request injunctions and magistrates were too quick to grant them. For some time now, the Israel Press Council has been suggesting an arrangement under which a media outlet would be allowed to voice its position in court before an injunction is granted. The fact that gag orders are often lifted relatively quickly has prevented such cases from reaching the Supreme Court, which could have instructed magistrates to give greater weight to the public's right to know.
The acute need to regulate gag orders grows all the more due to blogs and Web sites that do not obey injunctions and publish details of investigations, creating rumors and showing contempt for the courts and law alike.
The Knesset must find a balancing formula that would make it clear that gag orders are exceptions to the rule of freedom of speech. The authority to grant them should be given to presidents and vice presidents of district courts, just as they have the authorization to permit wiretapping. Meanwhile, the media, nonprofit organizations and other representatives of the public and its right to know must receive the right to present their case in court before a gag order is handed down.
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