Unjustified Blackout

The Katsav rape trial cannot be covered over with a blackout until the court issues its verdict, several months from now.

Former president Moshe Katsav began testifying this week in Tel Aviv District Court in his rape case. The trial is closed to the public but the start of his testimony reminded people that it is taking place and that it has entered the defense phase.

The allegations against Katsav have been served up in the media for more than three years through television "testimony" from several of his accusers, interviews by Attorney General Menachem Mazuz and a press conference in which Katsav lambasted the media in general and Channel 2 television in particular. The plea bargain and Katsav's subsequent rejection of the deal received wide coverage, including interviews with the former president.

Katsav's trial for two counts of rape plus other sexual offenses reflects accusations from three women who had been in his employ as tourism minister and later as president. The trial, which began about three months ago, had seemingly disappeared from the public agenda.

The judges have a near blackout on the court sessions by virtue of their authority to conduct closed-door proceedings in cases involving sexual offenses - a departure from the basic principle that trials are open to the public.

Contrary to popular belief, closing such trials to the public is not mandatory. Society seeks confidentiality for the testimony of complainants in sexual offense cases, primarily so they may testify without fear; this does not require building a fortress around a trial involving a clear and exceptionally strong public interest.

Public coverage of the trial need only infringe in a proportionate manner, through a partial rather than a total media blackout on the proceedings: Testimony can be heard behind closed doors but the transcript of the testimony should be released within a reasonable period of time, while assuring that personal details identifying the witnesses are excluded.

The extraordinary public interest in the Katsav trial, the fact that the sexual offenses of which he is accused allegedly involved the abuse of authority and the publication in the media of conflicting accounts justify such a release of the transcripts. The High Court of Justice, in connection with a petition opposing a blackout on the Katsav case, recommended the trial judges act in this spirit, and it is difficult to accept the judges' disregard of this.

The Katsav case cannot be covered over with a blackout until the court issues its verdict, several months from now. Justice must not only be done but also be seen to be done.