Two journalists were detained for five and a half hours overnight Wednesday and their equipment was temporarily confiscated after they documented Temple Mount activists trying to smuggle goat kids into Jerusalem's Old City.
Haaretz's Hagar Shezaf and the Walla website's Yotam Ronen are making an independent film on Temple Mount activists and were accompanying two of them trying to smuggle the goats in the trunk of their car.
Each year, activists try to reach the Temple Mount to conduct the Passover sacrifice. In most cases, they are arrested by the police awaiting them.
The vehicle carrying the journalists and activists was stopped at the Old City's Jaffa Gate. Although Shezaf and Ronen presented government-issued journalist IDs, they were taken to a police station. Their cameras were confiscated, including the memory cards, before being returned. The two activists were arrested.
A police officer "even took Yotam's memory cards that were on his key chain and have nothing to do with what we filmed, and asked if he was hiding more cards," Shezaf said. The two were held separately all night and were released at 6:30 A.M. without being questioned.
The police said in response: "As part of the Israel Police's increased operational activity and assessments in Jerusalem ahead of the holiday, four suspects were detained with goat kids and were suspected of heading to the Temple Mount to carry out a provocation and disturb the public order."
The police said the two Temple Mount activists were questioned on suspicion of animal abuse and breach of the peace. The two journalists were released but will be called in for questioning.
Haaretz Editor-in-Chief Aluf Benn sent a letter Thursday to acting police chief Motti Cohen saying that the confiscation of the reporters' equipment "gravely damages their journalistic privilege."
"The police know well the rules of conduct with journalists holding press cards issued by the Government Press Office, and are required to adhere to them," Benn wrote. "You are hereby requested to immediately return the equipment in your possession, and until then ensure that it is not used in any way."
If the police seek to use any journalistic material – filmed, recorded or written down – "they must provide a court order to seize it and examine it," Benn wrote.
The Union of Journalists in Israel said it "emphatically condemned" the detentions and confiscations. "There is no place in a democratic country for the detention or arrest of journalists doing their work in the name of the public," the union said, adding that the confiscation seriously breached freedom of the press.
In its own statement, the Israel Press Council called the police's move "a severe violation of the freedom of the press. Confiscating a memory card ... as 'evidence' is a direct, intentional violation of journalistic confidentiality."
According to a police spokeswoman, the memory cards would be returned to Shezaf and Ronen "without the police trying to examine their contents."
Raphael Morris, the chairman of the Return to the Mount movement, said of the incident: "The Israel Police are continuing their usual policy of weakness when they devote themselves to eradicating the Jewish demand to offer the Passover sacrifice while they let Muslims continue to demand the murder of Jews at the Temple Mount and open the Gate of Mercy just to avoid drawing their wrath."
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