Israeli Courts Administration Tried to Remove Articles Critical of Judges From Internet

Special task force asked Google to remove search results of articles from Haaretz, TheMarker, Globes and Walla

Netael Bandel
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Israel's Supreme Court, Jerusalem, May 3, 2020.
Israel's Supreme Court, Jerusalem, May 3, 2020.Credit: Oren Ben Hakoon
Netael Bandel

The Courts Administration tried to hide mainstream media reports critical of judges by asking Google Israel to remove them from its search results, according to official statistics from the administration that were obtained by Haaretz.

The requests were submitted by the administration’s task force for preventing online smears against judges. The media outlets whose articles it asked Google to remove from search results included Haaretz, TheMarker, Globes and Walla.

In some cases, the Courts Administration didn’t inform the relevant media outlets that it had requested an article’s removal. Moreover, it never informed the Justice Ministry that it was trying to remove such articles, and its legal adviser, Barak Lazer, did not mention this fact when he briefed the Knesset on the task force’s work in 2018.

The task force was formed by former Supreme Court President Asher Grunis due to an increase in online attacks on judges, particularly on social media. Its job was to ask social media companies to remove offensive posts. It also warned the people who wrote them that if the posts weren’t removed, the Courts Administration may take legal action against them.

In 2018, the Movement for Governability and Democracy filed a complaint against the task force, which has been headed since its inception by attorney Liat Youssim. Deputy Attorney General Ran Nizri concluded that its conduct posed legal problems and temporarily froze its work. He then formed a joint committee of the Courts Administration and the Justice Ministry to consider how it should operate.

Based on that panel’s recommendations, the ministry imposed some restrictions. For instance, the task force was barred from contacting people who wrote offensive posts or maintaining a database of their names.

But the rules applied only to social media, since the ministry was not aware that the task force was also trying to remove mainstream media articles from Google’s search results. And Lazer, in his briefing to the Knesset, insisted that the task force’s mandate was solely to address “serious cases that involve incitement to violence against judges.”

Barak Laizer in court, Jerusalem, February 14, 2011.
Barak Laizer in court, Jerusalem, February 14, 2011.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

A Courts Administration official said the task force contacts Google only if a judge complains; it doesn’t go looking for problematic content online. But a senior Justice Ministry official said that this did not make its conduct acceptable.

“This is so unfounded, so far beyond its authority, so contrary to freedom of the press,” the ministry official said. “It’s a scandal.”

Haaretz obtained a list of articles that the task force asked Google to remove from its results. Judging by that list, the articles in question were straight journalistic reports that didn’t infringe on judges’ privacy or incite to violence against them.

In 2015, for instance, the task force asked for the removal of report of the Globes business daily from 2005 stating that then-Attorney General Menachem Mazuz had closed a fraud investigation against Acre Magistrate’s Court Judge Jameel Nasser due to insufficient evidence. It also asked Google to remove reports on that decision by the Walla and NRG news websites.

Google generally rejected requests to remove news stories from its search results. But in this case, Walla and NRG removed the story from their websites themselves. Only Globes refused to do so.

In 2016, the task force asked Google to remove Globes’ report that the judicial ombudsman had upheld a complaint against Menachem Finkelstein, today deputy president of the Central District Court, over a letter he sent to then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak while serving as the military advocate-general. In that letter, Finkelstein expressed “astonishment and disappointment” over Barak’s decision to appoint Adi Efroni as Finkelstein’s replacement rather than Sharon Afek.

In 2018, it sought the removal of a Haaretz report whose headline stated that “a defense attorney who was negligent” had been made a judge. The article stated that negligence by Michal Davidi – today a traffic court judge – led to a client’s conviction for illegally possessing a knife, and only thanks to other lawyers was he acquitted on appeal. Following that incident, the Public Defender’s Office stopped employing Davidi.

Also in 2018, the task force requested the removal of a 2004 report in TheMarker about a request by the then-chairman of the Knesset Constitution Committee, Michael Eitan, to suspend Judge Iddo Rusin until a complaint against him had been investigated. Rusin is currently deputy president of the Be’er Sheva Magistrate’s Court.

As for posts on social media, in 2016 the Courts Administration asked Twitter to block a satirical account called “Fake Miriam Naor,” after the then president of the Supreme Court – and asked Google to remove the account from its search results. Both companies refused and the person behind the account told Haaretz that he never received any request on the matter from the either the courts or Twitter.

In 2017, the Courts Administration asked Google and Twitter to block a fake account using the name of Supreme Court president Esther Hayut. Twitter agreed to the request because the profile was not described as “fake,” as opposed to the case of the account in Naor’s name, and as a result it violated Twitter’s rules. The Courts Administration also succeeded that same year in removing a report from the Channel Seven website, in which social activist Gil Ronen reported from within a closed hearing in Family Court.

The Courts Administration said that on December 11, 2019, “the updated version of the working and oversight procedures of the courts director for handling offensive reports on the internet took effect (an update of the version from November 2015). The updated version of the procedures provides tools for dealing with the phenomenon of the harassment of judges on the internet, among other things, with the goal of reducing it, while preserving the balances required by law, and it is the result of the work of a joint working team of the Justice Ministry and the Courts Administration.”

“The links that were attached to the question [about the reports in this story] concern old reports from the period that preceded the update of the procedures by the joint team and today it is hard to trace the reasons for these few removal requests. In any case, as to the two requests from 2017, the question itself shows that one concerns a Twitter profile in the name ‘Esther Hayut’ that appears to be real, without it being noted that it is an imposter (fake), and the second request from the same year relates to a report from a case behind closed doors. In 2019 and 2020 there were no requests to remove journalistic reports.”

The Justice Ministry’s response confirms that the Courts Administration did not report, as part of the joint committee, the requests to Google to remove the reports from its search results. “We cannot remember any such requests that were submitted to us.”

“In any case, the committee that was established to formulate the regulations is looking toward the future, and it has done so, in part, because of the direct requests of the Courts Administration to remove content according to standards that were not coordinated with the attorney general,” said the Justice Ministry. “Accordingly, the regulation decided on is intended to ensure that the conduct will meet the accepted standards that balance between the freedom of expression and other protected rights and interests.”

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