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The Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a bill on Sunday whose purpose is to delay the publication of the names of criminal suspects. Submitted by the Justice Ministry, the draft law restricts the freedom of information in an unprecedented manner.

If enacted, it would be the first time that the release of the name of a suspect prior to charges being filed would be absolutely prohibited by law for 48 hours after the suspect has been informed of the investigation.

The main beneficiaries of the secrecy granted by the law would be senior public officials such as the prime minister and other cabinet ministers, Knesset members and mayors, or senior business people and attorneys whose investigation is of public interest.

Only a court, if specifically requested, would be authorized to permit publication in the name of public interest, if the publication is essential to fighting crime, or at the suspect's request.

The bill reverses the long-established norm that permitting publication is the rule and forbidding it the exception. Until 2002 court were not authorized to prohibit the release of the names of adult suspects unless the investigation required it. That year it was stipulated that the court was authorized to ban publication until an indictment is served, to prevent "grave damage" to the suspect, among other things.

The Supreme Court ruled that caution must be taken not to impose excessive limitations on the public's right to know in real time. But the magistrate's courts, which deal with requests for such gag orders have proved to be overly eager to in restricting the freedom of information.

They do so despite the fact that releasing a suspect's name is also intended to prevent rumors and the implication of many others, in the case of a probe against an unnamed "senior minister" or "businessman."

The argument in the introduction to the bill about "erroneous" suspicions has not been proved relevant to many public figures. It is doubtful that the bill will help ordinary citizens, whose criminal investigations are usually not made public.

If the MKs have these people's interest at heart, let them stipulate in the bill that the ban would not apply to investigations against cabinet ministers, MKs and public officials,

It can be assumed that in that case the legislators would be in no hurry to impose this constitutionally dubious ban, which would cause disproportionate damage to the freedom of publication.