AG Pushing 'Gag Law' Curbing Media Coverage of Open Cases

Witnesses couldn't be named, nor could sensitive material be described.

Revital Hovel
Revital Hovel
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Revital Hovel
Revital Hovel

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and State Prosecutor Moshe Lador are pushing a bill that would prohibit the publication of investigative materials. Names of witnesses could not be revealed, nor could the content of sensitive documents, even if they do not violate privacy or obstruct the investigation.

This would be an alternative version of the bill dubbed the “gag law” that the Justice Ministry drafted in 2011 and which was strongly criticized in the media. That version would have effectively placed a permanent gag order on all criminal investigations.

Since then, the ministry has conveyed that the original bill was being dropped, and that at most a version would be formulated that would forbid raw investigative materials (like medical or bank statements) from being published, though their contents could be revealed. Now it emerges that a bill is being formulated that is much broader.

At issue is an amendment to the Courts Law, which already states that a gag order can be imposed in cases where there is serious concern that either privacy or the conduct of an investigation would be undermined. It is used sparingly in cases of great public interest because of the public’s right to know, which the Supreme Court has ruled that in certain cases trumps the right to privacy.

Haaretz has learned that the prosecution wants to broaden the law such that it would be forbidden to publish the names of witnesses, the parties to a case, or any other person out of concern for privacy, even during the police investigation stage, and even if revealing names does not undermine the investigation itself. The new bill would also prohibit the publication of original documents, such as appointment books, medical reports or bank documents. The prosecution is also suggesting a gag order on investigative materials that are not submitted to the court, but exist in the investigation file.

Haaretz has learned that the State Prosecutor’s Office is now surveying various prosecutors in an effort to collect examples of “harmful” publication as a way to justify the proposed bill. It should be noted that if such a law had been in effect, it would have been forbidden to publish records from the appointments book of Ehud Olmert’s top aide Shula Zaken, which led to the investigation against Olmert in the Investment Center and cash-envelopes cases and were revealed by Gidi Weitz in Haaretz.

These bills are being initiated by Weinstein with support of the State Prosecutor’s Office, even though one would ordinarily expect such legislation to be promoted by groups or attorneys representing the accused. This reflects Weinstein’s background as a criminal defense attorney, which has also been expressed in critical comments he has made over the years about investigative material appearing in the media, which he believes leads to “conviction” by public opinion and undermines legal proceedings.

His intentions in this area were announced at an Israel Bar Association Conference in May 2010, when he said, “There’s a difference between freedom of the press and journalistic lawlessness. The first must be respected, the second, absolutely not.” At a discussion in 2011 that included senior Justice Ministry officials and journalists about the earlier version of the bill, Weinstein said, “The presumption of innocence is granted to every person. I’ve said that I will fight this phenomenon and forbid the publication of raw investigative material.”

The Justice Ministry said in response to Haaretz: “The issues referred to in your inquiry are still under internal review by the Justice Ministry, and so we cannot address them at this stage.”

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein.Credit: Olivier Fitussi

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