The veteran journalist Yasser Okbi, of Radio Nas and Kul al-Arab newspaper and a member of the governing board of the Union of Journalists in Israel, wanted to cover the protest against the forestation work by the Jewish National Fund in the area of the unrecognized Bedouin village of Sawa in the northern Negev on Monday.
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He arrived at the site with a film crew and tried to get near the scene of the incident to document it, as expected of him – when suddenly the commander of the forces pushed him and demanded that he move during a live broadcast, said Okbi.
When Okbi tried to protest, and identified himself as a reporter, he was detained by the police officers, who said he was interfering with their carrying out their duties. His phone, his tool for work, was taken from him and he was brought to the police station. He was searched there and detained for over three hours, some of the time behind bars, after which it was decided there was no reason to investigate him and he was released.
This incident comes in the wake of the outrageous arrest of Haaretz journalist Gidi Weitz last month, also because of the false claim that he supposedly interfered with police officers in carrying out their duties. Okbi and Weitz are part of a much broader phenomenon of the detention and arrest of journalists in Israel, under the guise that they are “interfering” with police officers carrying out their duties. But journalistic coverage, even of police work and also under harsh conditions at the scene, is not “interference” – it is permitted by law and is essential in a democracy.
The Israel Police often misuses its authority and uses excessive force – not only against journalists, but also against citizens in general, and especially against underprivileged groups such as Palestinians, those of Ethiopian origin and ultra-Orthodox Jews. But when it comes to using excessive force against journalists, not only are human rights violated, but also the public’s right to know. Because detention or arrest of journalists often means a halt to coverage on the ground – and after all that is the true goal of the police officers.
The chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, MK Gilad Kariv (Labor), recently adopted a proposal from the Zulat Institute whose goal is to prevent similar occurrences. This would be through an amendment to the criminal code, which would state that anyone who attacks journalists carrying out their job is committing a crime. The amendment would also include a list of instances which would be considered aggravated assault on a journalist – including police violence against media people.
In addition, they are proposing an amendment to the law on intimidating harassment, which would require the attorney general to use strict consideration in examining complaints from journalists of intimidating harassment, as well as a mechanism for compensation without requiring proof of damages if an order is violated in the case of a journalist.
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These proposals are an important step in protecting the freedom of the press in Israel. Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai must make clear to the police that it must stop interfering with journalists carrying out their duties.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.