Journalists who publish material from a police investigation could be sentenced to up to a year in prison, according to a draft bill being pushed by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein that would effectively put a permanent gag order on all criminal investigations.
Under the bill, a suspect, defendant or attorney who gives anyone else material from a police investigation would also be liable for up to a year in prison. A civil servant who passes on material from an investigation that he received in the line of duty would be liable for a three-year prison term.
If the bill is enacted, no information from a police investigation could ever be published, even after an indictment is filed, unless a media outlet obtains permission from either a court, the attorney general or a defined list of other top law enforcement officials. They will be authorized to allow details of the investigation to be published for the sake of "preserving the public welfare" or advancing some other "vital interest."
Weinstein's proposal has raised fears that details of investigations against public figures would go unpublished, leaving the public to rely on very broad and partial information released by the law enforcement agencies or defense attorneys.
The bill would also forbid publishing photographs of law enforcement operations, including arrests and any other actions carried out as part of an investigation, without a court's approval. However, it would not forbid documenting arrests made at a public event, such as a demonstration or riot.
The ban would also apply to interrogation transcripts, video footage of interrogations, reconstructions, lie-detector tests and even security camera footage of a crime under investigation.
But State Prosecutor Moshe Lador said the bill as currently worded is ineffective and would be possible to circumvent.
The president of the Israel Press Council, former Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner, strongly objected to the proposed legislation.
"I don't like these limitations on freedom of expression," she told Haaretz. "The police and justice system cannot solve their problems, so they are trying to gag the media."
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel warned that the bill could "lead to an impossible situation for a democracy, in which investigations are routinely held under strict secrecy."
But Weinstein strongly defended his bill at a meeting with media representatives yesterday.
"Every man is presumed innocent," he told the assembled journalists. "I said I would fight this trend of publishing raw material from investigations. I wouldn't like to be attorney general of a state where freedom of the press is not respected. But I thought it should be restricted in this instance."
Several law enforcement officials said the most surprising article of the bill was the one stating that the ban would remain in force even after an indictment was filed. They also said the bill should be amended to exclude investigations in which there is a special public interest, such as probes of public officials.