Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is showing a consistent and dangerous tendency to operate in the shadows, behind the public’s back and with a dimming of the media. Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Ministry announced that a Magistrate Court in Haifa had imposed a gag order on the investigation of the tar pollution of the country’s beaches. The court acceded to the ministry’s request and prohibited the publication of any detail which could lead to the identification of the vessel suspected of causing the pollution. As usual in such cases, the public is supposed to be convinced that the state is concealing details for the public’s own benefit, just as the court was convinced by the ministry’s arguments that “publication at this sensitive stage could harm a complex investigation which has international ramifications.”
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The government’s attempt to hide from the public the details of an ecological disaster and impose a gag order on the identity of the perpetrator is almost as serious as the pollution itself. The government is signatory to the request to conceal information, clearly acting against the interest of its citizens and against its duty to expose the identity of the offenders to the public. The public is the victim of this transgression and it has the right not only to be informed about the investigation, but to learn why the state believes the public does not have the basic right to know the identity of the offender who acted against it.
Furthermore, this is not a lone or unusual instance, in which one could be convinced of special circumstances that justify concealment from the public. The censorship over the investigation of the tar pollution comes only a few days after the court acceded to another request, this time by the police, who asked for a gag order on another investigation relating to an Israeli woman who had crossed the border into Syria. The gag order covered not only the investigation itself. Details about the deal in which prisoners were exchanged for the woman were also concealed, at the demand of military censors.
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This isn’t just about gag orders and military censorship. Over the last year, the Netanyahu government has gone out of its way to conceal its operations from the public eye. It has insisted on concealing all the minutes of cabinet and committee meetings relating to the coronavirus for another 30 years, as if this were a defense-related event and not a global pandemic. Despite the differences between these cases, they share the stench of concealment. Purported reasons run the gamut from defense-related to diplomatic to health to economic reasons – the main goal is to keep the media and the public in the dark, with the government acting unhindered, without any transparency.
The government and the police have found an effective and easy way of avoiding public oversight or criticism by silencing any public debate. This culture of gag orders and censorship must end. If the government refuses to give an account of its actions to its citizens, the courts must not cooperate with such a policy. Instead of serving as a rubber stamp, they must refuse to issue gag orders that harm the public interest.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.