Last week policemen arrested Haaretz reporter Gidi Weitz, an investigative journalist, because he dared to ask them why they were questioning a Palestinian. He was cuffed hand and foot, and detained with police falsely claiming that he had “interfered with a police officer in the performance of his duty.” It was clear to police from the start that there was no reason for detaining Weitz, who presented himself as a journalist. Shortly after he was brought to the police station he was released.
Some people rightfully asked why so much attention was paid to Weitz’s arrest. After all, police resort to violence against citizens, violate their human and civil rights, and when someone complains about police brutality, a file is immediately opened against him for assaulting a policeman. It is also true that this has been deliberate government policy since the premiership of Ariel Sharon: When the police do their job, they endanger prime ministers and ministers by exposing their corruption.
And still, it is imperative to provide extra protection for journalists. It should be noted that freedom of the press in Israel is based only on two decisions by the High Court of Justice; one of them (the “Voice of the People” ruling) is over 60 years old. Journalists are public emissaries; they expose the flaws in the administration of the government and bring information to the public that is essential to its ability to maintain a democratic system. If all we have is propaganda – and every government disseminates propaganda about itself – we have no ability to distinguish between truth and lies. In the absence of such an ability, we are incapable of governing ourselves.
The chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, MK Gilad Kariv, adopted a draft bill of the Zulat Institute for Equality and Human Rights (disclosure: I am the president of the institute). The purpose of the draft law is to recognize an assault on a journalist in the pursuit of his duty as a crime worse than ordinary assault, to consider it a grave offense if committed by police, and to amend the Prevention of Harassment Law when it concerns journalists.
We should recall that journalists are also exposed to attacks on the part of demonstrators – as recently happened to Baruch Kra of Channel 13 News. Kra did not complain to the police, but that’s irrelevant: Policemen witnessed the attack, and the police are obligated to open an investigation.
It could be claimed that there is no need for a special law, because there are already laws against assault, and if we define journalists as more protected than the rest of the public, we will promote their freedom of expression above and beyond that of others. The reply to that is that although Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev is working to introduce order in the police force, at the moment police don’t protect journalists who are attacked. Moreover, protecting journalists’ freedom of activity won’t undermine other people’s freedom of expression.
There are three main reasons for protecting journalists by law. First, we have to ensure that they are acting without fear. Second, any restraint on the part of the police force in its present situation is beneficial. Police have to know that if they detain a journalist for no reason, they are risking dismissal and prosecution. Third, and perhaps most importantly: In the era of fake news, it is imperative to protect those who are engaged in exposing the truth and curbing propaganda. They are protecting us no less than policemen and soldiers. We have to create a special deterrent against harming them. A democracy that is defending itself needs a red line: Let us draw it.