The gap between pride in freedom of expression – which is presented as one of the foundations of Israeli democracy – and the reality on the ground is growing wider. Arrests because of Facebook updates, being “warned” by the police or Shin Bet security service about one’s political activities, and the ridiculous detentions of demonstrators, have all become far too common, and prove that state authorities, first and foremost the police, have forgotten what their jobs are.
In recent days, the police sank to a new low when they arrested a lawyer for a poem he posted on his Facebook page, and recommended that an investigation be launched against MK Haneen Zoabi for her remarks in connection with the three kidnapped teenagers.
Lawyer and social activist Barak Cohen posted a protest poem against a police officer that included the following lines: “A green-eyed snake is roaming the streets gathering [intelligence] and harassing, devouring living creatures, without a uniform, without laws and without God, beating all the children unmercifully: Hamdani, a junior policeman, an intelligence coordinator for the regime.”
The police said Cohen was arrested on suspicion of “insulting a public servant,” and he was held in custody until being brought before a judge. This particular violation should be removed from the statute books altogether, but, as long as it remains there, it should be very narrowly interpreted – similar to other violations that touch on freedom of expression. The poem Cohen wrote poses no grounds at all for questioning, let alone detention.
No less serious was the police recommendation to open an investigation into Zoabi on suspicion of incitement, when all she said was that she doesn’t view those who kidnapped the three hitchhiking teens in the West Bank as terrorists. Her remarks were not incitement and constituted no violation of the law. When one compares what she said to inflammatory remarks made by other MKs on other issues – like asylum seekers, for example (whom MK Miri Regev called “a cancer”), or homosexuals (“They should be treated the way we treated bird flu,” said MK Nissim Zeev) – one can only conclude that police decisions on whom to probe are politically biased.
Even if the investigations against Cohen and Zoabi end with no charges being filed, the very fact of the arrest or probe recommendation have a chilling effect on the expression of opinions, and as a result seriously undermines free expression and democracy.
The attorney general must order the police to stop these types of arrests and investigations, and the police commissioner must redeploy his forces to do what the police are here for – to protect its citizens, not harass them.