We Are All Still in the Dark

Some things cannot be looked up in books. Just like the rumors that have been circulating for years regarding the system by which the Israel Defense Forces calculates ranking in the "quality group."

There are things that are not written in the encyclopedia, on any Web site or in the fancy brochures printed by government ministries to summarize the budgetary year. Sometimes this is information that is in the public domain that has never received official confirmation. In a word: rumors. Just like the rumors that have been circulating for years regarding the system by which the Israel Defense Forces calculates ranking in the "quality group." This ranking is a grade given to the recruit by a psychotechnical diagnostician, which determines his fate during the course of his military service - whether he will become an officer or serve in the Ordinance Corps, become a pilot or collect cigarette butts until the day he is discharged.

The members of the Movement for Freedom of Information, which is now marking the first anniversary of its establishment, claim that rumor has it that the formula for calculating the quality group includes irrelevant variables, such as the number of children per room in the home where the recruit grew up, whether his parents are divorced, and other factors that do not depend on him and that are not supposed to affect the quality of his military service. Two weeks ago, the movement petitioned the court for administrative matters in Tel Aviv, via attorney Ilan Yonash, demanding that the IDF be ordered to reveal the formula.

Not much help

The appeal was preceded by a request to the IDF Spokesman's Office, but the reply was not of much help in clearing the fog. "The professional value of the IDF tools for classification and assessment," said the reply of the spokesman, in military language, "depends to a great extent on their secrecy ... Revealing the work methods is considered exposing information whose revelation can interfere with the assessment tools and the ability of the military authorities to classify, examine and assess the manpower. Therefore, revealing the information undermines the basis for most of these tools, by significantly damaging the reliability and validity of these tools."

It is hard to say that the reply surprised the members of the Movement for Freedom of Information. The reflex that causes government authorities to writhe uncomfortably in the face of any demand to reveal information is very familiar to them. But this time, they decided not to give in. "There is no escaping the feeling that the army is evading the transmission of information with false claims, and that no genuine and correct judgment was exercised in making the decision not to transmit the requested information," said the administrative appeal. "If the reply of the IDF had been that a high school education is `worth' five units in determining quality group ranking, and an elementary school education is worth two units; how would the ability of the army to classify, to examine and to assess the manpower be damaged?"

The members of the Movement for Freedom of Information - the head of the movement, journalist Raviv Drucker; Dr. Yuval Karniel and Dr. Yoram Rabin, who are among the founders - do not consider turning to legal instances an unnecessary harassment of the authorities. In recent months they have succeeded, using similar methods, to expose to the public information that the authorities preferred to leave in the drawer. For example, the conflict of interest agreement of the head of the Disengagement Administration, Yonatan Bassi, in which it turns out that he also serves at the director of the Mehadrin company, which owns land in the Nitzanim area; additional conflict of interest agreements, including those of the director of the Prime Minister's Office, Ilan Cohen, and the adviser of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Dov Weissglas; and even the list of holders of diplomatic passports who are not MKs, members of the security services or members of the foreign service. The lists and the agreements, by the way, have appeared on the Web site of the movement since they became available.

Seven years have passed since Israel passed the Freedom of Information Law. The law itself is a kind of revolution in awareness regarding the right of government authorities to conceal from the public information they have accumulated. The possibility of submitting petitions to the court, with a demand that various government bodies reveal information, is a development in the right direction, however, the very fact that in many cases the authorities refuse to reveal information to the public on their own initiative, and force the public to turn to the courts, where it registers partial achievements, indicates that the law did not bring about the upheaval that was supposed to take place.

Seven lean years

And in fact, "The Seven Lean Years" was the name of the movement's first annual conference, which took place last week in the law school of the College of Management in Rishon Letzion. "Nobody denies that the law has advanced the freedom of information in Israel," write Dr. Yoram Rabin and Roy Peled in an article that is soon to be published in the periodical Hamishpat (The Law). "The public today receives information that was not available to it in the past. However, it is hard to describe what has happened during these years as `the transparency revolution.' The government authorities, in spite of their progressive declarations, continue to treat the information as though they own it. The public does not demonstrate a willingness to fight for its right to information, and often it prefers to give up on the desired information or to obtain it in informal ways. The courts, when they come to decide on a request for revelation of information, continue for their part to behave with a great degree of respect for the organizational considerations of the authority, for its freedom of operation and for its judgment."

When he was the legal adviser of the Second Authority for Television and Radio, Dr. Karniel served as a member of a committee headed by Judge Victoria Ostrovsky-Cohen, which prepared the bill. Other members of the committee included Moshe Shahal and David Libai, who were ministers at the time, Dedi Zucker, who was an MK, and others. "We thought this was a law relating to the media," says Karniel. "The idea was that journalists and the media would be the ones to use the law and breathe life into it. But in the years since then I have regretfully seen how the media almost ignore its existence. Journalists are not aware of the law's existence, they don't make use of it in investigations, and the media rarely make requests based on it. It is clear to me that transparency and freedom of information are the basis for any war against the corruption threatening Israeli society today."

In terms of the transparency of government activity, Israel is still trailing far behind several Western countries. In Sweden, for example, the public is allowed to read incoming and outgoing correspondence in the offices of government ministers, even before the letters have been read by the officials themselves. In Great Britain the commissioner of freedom of information ordered the cabinet ministers to publish their meeting schedule. The ministers were angry, but they were forced to allow the public to look into their diaries as well.

In Israel, the Freedom of Information Law applies to some government institutions: government ministries, the president's office, the Knesset, the state comptroller and organizations reviewed by him, the courts, the local authorities, statutory corporations, government corporations and companies under the control of the local authorities. But many public bodies are not obligated to abide by the transparency required by the law.

Four months ago, the chair of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, MK Michael Eitan of the Likud, formulated a bill that would add to the list institutions of higher learning - the universities and the public colleges. The bill was submitted in the wake of the decision of the previous justice minister, Yosef Lapid, to reject Eitan's request to officially add the universities and the colleges to the list of institutions to which the law applies. Lapid's decision was made about a year ago.

`No light'

Eitan was among those invited to the conference of the Movement for Freedom of Information last week. "Information is the light of democracy," he said with pathos. "If there is no information, there is no light. We are all in the dark. The basic law says that the administration has nothing of its own, it is a trustee of the citizen. Therefore, the information does not belong to the administration, but to all of us. This starting point has not been internalized in the State of Israel." The moderator, Dr. Rabin, reminded those present of Eitan's bill, but mentioned that last week the Ministerial Committee for Legislative Affairs decided to oppose the proposal.

But on the dais sat the chair of committee, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. The minister explained that the government had decided to oppose the proposal, but the decision was made only because, as opposed to Lapid, she did in fact agree to broaden the law regarding freedom of information, and to apply it to the health maintenance organizations, the universities and the colleges, as well. Therefore, she added, there is no need to amend the law. "I came here today in order to enlist myself of my own free will to this issue," said Livni, "both because the issue itself is important, and because I have responsibility as the minister in charge of executing the law."

Livni listened to the complaints about the fact that certain government ministries have not appointed someone in charge of freedom of information, as required, and even those who were appointed have not yet internalized the transparency demanded by the law. "These are very human processes," she tried to explain, "which in the end make implementation of the law difficult to impossible. Even I sometimes have difficulty with this subject."

The justice minister told how, for example, a representative of the Justice Ministry on the committee for animal experiments was opposed to writing minutes at meetings; how the minutes written at sessions of the Judicial Selection Committee do not represent everything that was said at them; how even in legal discussions in the Supreme Court, no minutes are taken; how the state comptroller does not publish the names of those criticized in his reports.

"And most important," added Livni, "in the government ministries there is no collective memory. We learn the same things each time from scratch. Materials that are collected are not concentrated anywhere, and sometimes are not even written, out of fear that if they [the ministries] write, they may be forced to publish. As the minister in charge, I wanted to know what is happening in the Justice Ministry on this matter. In all, there is an understanding that at issue is the difficulty of the system to internalize the work and publication procedures, not due to corruption but because that's how we have been working all these years. That is why there are in-service courses, and in the government ministries and the statutory corporations they are at present examining whether they are all really operating in accordance with the Freedom of Information Law."