The legal adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office Shlomit Barnea Farago declared on Monday that the cabinet has no obligation to proactively publish its decisions for the public.
In a response to a request by civil rights attorney Shachar Ben Meir to ensure that cabinet decisions made remotely during the coronavirus crisis be published, Barnea Farago wrote that discussions by the cabinet and ministerial committees are confidential and that there was no law requiring the cabinet to volunteer decisions or debates for the public to see.
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However, she added, cabinet decisions and proposals are regularly published on the website of the Prime Minister’s Office.
In a response letter, Ben Meir wrote that a previous cabinet decision established that government services be made accessible, providing all the more reason to publish the decisions.
On Thursday, the High Court of Justice is set to hear a petition by civil rights groups and a number of media outlets, including Haaretz, to publish transcripts of cabinet meetings, especially those that took place during the coronavirus crisis. The petitions argue that the Basic Law on Government establishes that cabinet meetings are to be confidential only if they involve certain, legally defined subjects, and that the coronavirus crisis does not apply.
Haaretz sought to file a petition after its request for documents on the matter was rejected, despite National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat’s claim in a Knesset hearing that they were accessible to all. If a cabinet debate is defined as confidential, transcripts are made completely classified for 30 years, which the petition argues would prevent any necessary public debate about the government’s coronavirus-related decisions.
The government has told the High Court that it stands behind its legal justification for keeping the documents secret, as government regulations have defined that transcripts of cabinet meetings be classified as “top secret.” It further argued that the public’s right to information from authorities was not absolute and that there was concern that knowing transcripts would be public would make officials hesitant to speak freely.
The petition has led to the publication of some protocols, which are edited versions of the meeting summaries. The published protocols relate to cabinet decisions beginning on March 8, as well as those from before that date in which the coronavirus was discussed and from discussions by ministerial committees formed as part of emergency regulations.
As for cabinet meeting agendas and the proposals placed before the cabinet, the government said that it would be difficult to publish them because the crisis entailed decisionmaking on an urgent timetable, often done via a phone vote.
Protocols from the period of the current government, which was sworn in on May 17, have remained confidential. The decisions made on Monday by the special ministerial committee on the coronavirus crisis, for example, were not made public, aside from what officials announced in public remarks.