Haaretz Editorial

Lift the Gag Order

When the High Court convenes next week, it should adopt the positions which, in this case, are identical - of the attorney general and the media.

The ongoing saga now dubbed the "Harpaz affair," formerly known as the "Galant document," was born in the media and has been reported on for almost two years. Three weeks ago, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss issued his draft report on the affair - related to a possible attempt to influence the appointment of an Israel Defense Forces chief of staff through a document allegedly forged by Lt. Col. Boaz Harpaz. Lindenstrauss' draft report was officially released only to the parties involved, but in practice it was released to the public as well.

Col. Erez Weiner, an aide to former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, and also one of those most harshly criticized in the draft report, then sought to obtain the material on which the comptroller based the findings damaging to him. But Lindenstrauss refused.

In response, Weiner petitioned the High Court of Justice, and the attorney general sided with him against the comptroller. Only then, after having wasted three precious months, and with the end of his term as comptroller imminent, did Lindenstrauss capitulate and hand over a fistful of documents.

The press was soon filled with the testimony of the affair's protagonists. And only then, when the leaks had become a flood, did the comptroller become alarmed and ask the High Court to ban these reports.

The legal basis for the gag order is dubious. By law, gag orders do not apply to material used in state comptroller's reports. Enforcing the State Comptroller Law, which forbids unauthorized publication of the results of the comptroller's probes, requires opening a criminal investigation after the unauthorized publication has occurred and indicting the suspects - not an a priori ban on publication.

The comptroller apparently fears that, in the future, witnesses may refuse to appear before him and offer full and frank testimony if they believe their statements will later be published in the media. But he should have thought of that before starting a brawl with Weiner, who is fighting to exercise his rights.

The most refreshing development in this round of the Harpaz affair is a letter to the comptroller in which Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein laid out his principled stand against investigating leaks. The attorney general hoisted aloft the banner of freedom of expression, freedom of publication and the public's right to know. He also cited practical reasons for limiting the number of leak investigations, though he didn't propose eliminating them entirely. And for the future, he suggested an alternative tactic: direct dialogue with the Israel Press Council.

Common sense dictates then when the High Court justices convene next week to discuss extending the temporary gag order they imposed, they should adopt the positions - which, in this case, are identical - of the attorney general and the media.