Two institutions vital to Israel's democracy, the Supreme Court and the press, have both been under systematic attack recently by parts of the political right, which also constitutes the government. The independence of judges and journalists was a thorn in the side of those who loath the existence of influential actors who refuse to kowtow to the Netanyahu government and those whom the prime minister once described as his natural partners.
An impressive response to this assault was given this week by three Supreme Court justices - Eliezer Rivlin, Uzi Vogelman and Isaac Amit - when they overturned a verdict issued by someone who will be soon be joining their ranks, Jerusalem District Court Judge Noam Sohlberg. The court, in its current composition, placed itself squarely alongside a media that dares to investigate, and against Sohlberg, whose patron is Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman.
Rivlin and his colleagues rejected most of Sohlberg's conclusions in a libel suit filed by an Israel Defense Forces officer, Captain R., against journalist Ilana Dayan, presenter of the investigative television program "Uvda" ("Fact" ). Sohlberg performed a kind of bizarre castling move between the role of the journalist and that of the judge: He demanded the same factual accuracy of a journalist as he did of a judge, even as he, the judge, turned himself into a journalist and proposed alterations in how Dayan's report was edited.
The Supreme Court justices, in contrast, ruled that a media outlet cannot be required to examine the information reaching it as if it were a court, and that it is not a judge's job to suggest editing changes.
This should not be seen as a license for anarchy: A person's reputation, or that of a corporation, is still an asset that deserves protection. But the press should be given some room to maneuver, and it should also be viewed as having a "mission," provided that the report deals with an issue of significant public interest, as Vogelman put it, and that the journalist exercised caution, responsibility and restraint - meaning he cross-checked the information with multiple reliable, serious sources and sought verification and a response from anyone who would be hurt by the report. That is why the court distinguished between the core of Dayan's investigative report, which it acquitted of committing libel, and the outer layer of marketing, including a promo with no shades of gray, which it did find libelous.
The new legal principle that the justices promulgated thus strengthens Israeli democracy, which is more than ever in need of a free press and a wise, courageous judiciary.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now