"There was grave harm done to freedom of the press and democracy in Israel," when the authorities decided to call in Ha'aretz reporter Baruch Kra for questioning about obstruction of justice and accessed his cellular phone records to gather evidence, Mordechai Kremintzer, chairman of the Press Council, said yesterday at a rare press conference.
The Press Council has decided to go to the High Court of Justice to ask it to order a full accounting of the decision-making process that led Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein to approve accessing Kra's phone records, after the Justice Ministry refused to provide the information.
Kra received a leak about a police investigation into business dealings between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's sons and an old family friend; and Rubinstein's decision to order an investigation into the leak was vehemently denounced yesterday at the press conference, where other media figures, including Amnon Dankner, editor in chief of Ma'ariv, and Shalom Kital, head of Channel Two news, lashed out at the decision to investigate Kra on suspicion of obstruction of justice.
The investigation revealed that state prosecutor Liora Glatt-Berkovich, who was running the investigation, was the source of the leak. Her attorney says she believed the public had a right to know the prime minister was under investigation. Rubinstein says she was trying to intervene in the elections.
Kremintzer termed the inquiry's decision to access Kra's phone records a "clear and present danger" to Israeli democracy. The press conference was intended to "raise the cry and warning" in the matter, he said.
Dr. Yehiel Limor, head of the Israeli Association of Communications researchers, called for Rubinstein's resignation. He said it is "incredible" that a journalist's cell phone records are being used in investigations.
As of last night it was not known who gave the order to access the reporter's cell phone records. The identity of the judge who allowed phone-record access also remains a mystery.
Kremintzer charged that the decision to get the records was made retroactively - after Kra was interrogated on suspicion of obstructing justice - so as to justify those accusations.
Prof. Nitza Shapira-Liba'i, the acting president of the Press Council, said, "It's possible that the judge was given a false presentation. He may have been deceived and told that the requested warrant was for one affair, and not the real purpose, for which he would not have been able to issue a warrant."
She suggested that legislation be drafted that would not allow a warrant to be issued for a journalist's phone records without informing the reporter's newspaper or the Press Council beforehand and without granting the reporter representation at the hearing when the authorities make the request.
Ma'ariv editor Amnon Dankner, who ran a front-page editorial last week condemning Glatt-Berkovich for leaking the information about the inquiry to Kra, surprised the press conference yesterday when he argued that she should not be put on trial for the deed.
"It would be a black day for Israeli democracy if Ms. Glatt-Berkovich - and I have no sympathy for her deeds - is put on trial," Dankner said. "Informants should not live in fear and under legal terror. Leaks are the grease of the wheels of democracy."
Channel Two's Kital said the entire Israeli press must enlist in the cause against the release of the reporter's phone records - "newspapers, publishers, editors and the Press Council. Just like the prime minister said to the reporters at his press conference, `Are you crazy?' So I would like to say to the person who decided on this practice [of accessing phone records] and say, `Are you crazy?'"
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