Judicial Activism and the Media: Drawing the Thin Black Line

Israel's judges believe they need a proactive media policy, but the Courts Administration disagrees.

Revital Hovel
Revital Hovel
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Justice, justice shall you pursue! commands the Torah.
Justice, justice shall you pursue! commands the Torah.Credit: Bloomberg
Revital Hovel
Revital Hovel

“Israel loves Judge David Rozen,” proclaims a sign on Yehuda Halevi Street in Tel Aviv. But while Rozen earnedwide praise in the media for convicting former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the Holyland corruption case in March, relations between judges and journalists overall are tense. So it’s not surprising that the Israel Association of Judges hired a media advisor about a year ago to help it in its pension fight. Merav Parsi-Zadok was spokeswoman for the Hatnuah party in the 2013 election and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s media advisor.

The battle over judges’ pensions has been quiet, as has the work of a public committee on the issue chaired by former Justice Minister Moshe Nissim. The panel, whose very establishment judges view as a coup, was charged with evaluating the effects of moving judges from noncontributory, defined-benefit pensions paid entirely from the state budget to ordinary pensions.

So far, Parsi-Zadok has also worked quietly, though the committee’s recommendations could change that.

Judges say the unusual step of employing a media advisor reflects their understanding that unlike in the past, they cannot afford not to fight the media war, lest their public image suffer. Public relations has become a burning issue for the judges, who want a proactive media policy. But the Courts Administration has thus far refused to abandon its customary reticence.

Last year, the administration set up a special committee to make recommendations on media policy in the wake of judges’ complaints that attacks against them in the media went unanswered. These attacks reached their peak last July, when a rape complainant accused the three judges hearing her case of asked her to reenact the rape. The ensuing uproar spurred many judges to demand a new approach to the news media.

“I believe we must respond immediately to attacks in the media so that our voice will be heard,” wrote Judge Achikam Stoler in a letter to the judges’ professional organization. “The proper way is to hire the services of a media person who will act as spokesman for the Israel Association of Judges.”

In contrast, the Courts Administration opted to wait for the decision of the judicial ombudsman, former Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg, who after investigating the allegation determined that the judges had not acted inappropriately in the case. A month later, at the convocation ceremony for the new judicial year, Supreme Court President Asher Grunis delivered a rare diatribe against the media’s conduct.

The PR committee completed its work a few months ago. The Courts Administration declined to publish its report or even distribute it to the judges. But the chairwoman of the Israel Association of Judges, Judge Varda Wirth Livne, informed them that its recommendations “largely accord with the positions of the association” – in other words, that a more proactive approach to the media is needed – while also acknowledging that “at present, the judicial system’s policy does not favor proactive media relations.”

According to a number of figures who spoke with Haaretz on condition of anonymity, the judges had forwarded some of Parsi-Zadok’s recommendations to the Courts Administration, which vetoed them. In her letter to the judges, Wirth Livne confirmed this, writing, “The heads of the system aren’t ready for an active media policy, and therefore we need to continue to address this issue constantly until something changes.”

“The system is conservative, and perhaps rightly so,” one judge told Haaretz, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But there have been several incidents recently in which judges were smeared in the media, thereby consolidating an unflattering public view of the judges, and there’s no voice and no response from the other side except anonymous reactions. It’s not that we’re against criticism; the problem is that our side isn’t being heard.”

Before hiring Parsi-Zadok, the association had last engaged a media advisor five years ago, when it was fighting a Bar Association survey in which lawyers could rate judges.

Dr. Anat Peleg, who heads the Center for Media and Law at Bar-Ilan University and studies relations between judges and the press, said judges often use military language to describe the situation. “They speak of feeling abandoned” in the field, she said. “One judge told me they feel exposed in the cannon turret.”

Peleg said that when she researched judges’ views in 20005 and in 2008, “They didn’t think they should be interviewed and thought that separation was important.” But in 2012, “the change was that they did think they should be allowed to give interviews – obviously not about ongoing cases, but about issues of judicial policy, or responding to criticism.”

Citing a study of Midwestern U.S. states that found that 97 percent of judges gave background talks to journalists, Peleg said, “The judicial ethos in Israel is much more formal than is the norm in the West ... The media policy is very conservative and not open to changes that have been tried with great success in other countries.”

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