The state notified Israel's High Court of Justice on Thursday that it did not intend to release the transcripts of cabinet meetings held during the coronvavirus pandemic, or any other transcripts of cabinet meetings.
The filing with the court was in response to a petition filed by Haaretz and a number of additional parties seeking the release of the transcripts on the grounds that the Basic Law on the Government, which has constitutional status, stipulates that the contents of cabinet deliberations are only confidential for reasons specified by law, most of which relate to national security. The petition claims that the coronavirus pandemic does not fall within the grounds specified and that maximum transparency is particularly important during the current period.
In addition to Haaretz, the petitioners include lawyers Shachar Ben-Meir and Yitzhak Aviram, the Movement for Freedom of Information, the Globes and Calcalist business dailies and Kan public broadcasting.
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Haaretz took the decision to file the petition after a request that it made through its lawyer Tal Lieblich for the transcripts was denied by the cabinet secretary’s office, despite an assurance given by National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat at the Knesset that the transcripts were available to the public.
The petition claims that by deeming the contents of recent cabinet sessions confidential, the transcripts will be inaccessible to the public for the next 30 years, making it impossible to conduct proper public debate over the cabinet’s current policies.
A chilling effect
The state responded that the publication of the cabinet transcripts is barred by the bylaws governing the cabinet’s work, which stipulate that cabinet transcripts are classified “top secret,” a position that the state said is supported by the attorney general.
“The notion that the public has a right to information from the [government] is not absolute,” that state said, and it must be balanced against concern that disclosure would have a chilling effect that would impede the expression of views at cabinet meetings if members knew what they say would be made public.
“There are no grounds to make an exception in this case,” the state added, in response to the argument that the coronavirus pandemic does not fall within the exceptions provided for by law.
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Following the filing of the petition, the cabinet did release several sets of minutes in the form of edited summaries of the cabinet deliberations. They included summaries of cabinet resolutions beginning on March 8 and minutes of meetings prior to that on which the coronavirus issue was discussed. They also included summaries from ministerial committee meetings that were convened pursuant to emergency regulations.
“This does not mean the cabinet secretariat intends to voluntarily release the minutes of resolutions from now on, since such publication is not enshrined in the bylaws on the cabinet’s work or the freedom of information law, and in any event, most of the information in them, the resolutions, themselves, is voluntarily released.”
On the issue of the release of cabinet meeting agendas and proposed resolutions presented to the cabinet for the minister’s consideration, the state claimed that during the coronavirus pandemic, “cabinet resolutions were naturally adopted on an urgent basis, and a considerable portion of them were taken via telephone vote,” and therefore it might be difficult to release the information in an orderly fashion.
The state said requests for disclosure of background information provided to the cabinet from the National Security Council could be requested individually and that “a positive view” would be taken to such requests.
No hearing date has yet been set on the petition.