The new Israel Police guidelines to regulate the prevention of media coverage at the scene of an incident (Israel Police to restrict media coverage of events if journalists entry inflames violent atmosphere, Yaniv Kubovich, October 2) are another dangerous link in the chain of aggressive actions designed to restrict freedom of information and the publics right to know, and to enable the authorities to act in the dark. If you remove the empty verbiage and baseless declarations about the importance of freedom of expression, coverage and proper balance, the document distributed by the police legal adviser to the district and station commanders last week is meant, in essence, to enable commanders in the field to prevent any media access to the scene of an event – based on their judgment and on a frequent basis.
According to the guidelines, police will be able to block or limit the access of journalists to the main site of media coverage, including in cases where there is a fear that the entry of the journalist will inflame a violent atmosphere to a level that is liable to endanger human life [or] interfere with investigative proceedings, and a fear that the coverage will violate a gag order.
The first two conditions, which are based on a subjective fear, could almost always exist during coverage of a volatile incident. A demonstration, for example. The third condition constitutes a blatant violation of the existing arrangement, in which journalists are not prevented from gathering information on a subject, even if its under a gag order, which is after all meant to be temporary. According to the new guidelines, sub-district commanders with the rank of brigadier general will have more far-reaching powers: They can even bar journalists access to a site to which civilian access is permitted.
The circumstances that led to the wording of the guidelines show they were born in sin. Covering the demonstrations of the ultra-Orthodox and the disabled, whose documentation embarrassed the police and aroused criticism of their violence, is what led to the dissemination of the document. Had journalists been prevented from entering these areas, the public would not have known about the brutality with which police treated the demonstrators who were exercising their democratic right.
These infuriating steps add up to a gloomy overall picture. In recent years the requests for a gag order have increased significantly, led by the police. The requests are submitted in the presence of one side only (the authorities) and the judges are usually too quick on the trigger. The result is an ongoing emasculation of freedom of the press and of criticism.
The Journalists Association said on Tuesday that they would present their reservations about the content of the document to the police and High Court of Justice. We hope that the police will retract this draconian step – and if not, that the High Court justices will find a better balance between vital public interests and democracy.
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