Justice served

The press needs to be able to cultivate and establish confidential relationships with government officials.

August 23, 2017 21:30
3 minute read.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem July 30, 2

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem July 30, 2017. . (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Amid mounting speculation that he may sooner or later face indictment on a number of felony charges, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to contest a High Court of Justice decision requiring him to hand over records of his telephone conversions with the leadership of the Israel Hayom newspaper.

The court had ruled in favor of a petition filed some two years ago by investigative journalist Raviv Drucker under the Freedom of Information Act. Its ruling requires our prime minister to reveal the records of his phone conversations with Sheldon Adelson, who funds the paper, and its former editor Amos Regev – not the transcripts of their talk, but dates and times.

The court had ruled that, while private conversations are generally beyond the scope of the Freedom of Information Law, the public interest in this instance overcame the right to privacy. The justices found that Drucker’s request to know only the times of the phone calls, not their content, did not harm the prime minister’s privacy.

Netanyahu has requested that a larger panel of justices review the decision, asserting his right to privacy.

A statement released by Netanyahu family spokesman Nir Hefetz said that the prime minister still plans to release his phone records, “for the simple reason that he has nothing to hide,” but that he wants to fight the precedent the ruling set, which he argues limits his right to privacy.

We agree with the prime minister and believe that this case needs to be looked at from the two sides it involves – that of the prime minister and of the media.

On the one hand, Drucker is right to ask the court for a list of the phone calls. Netanyahu is a prime minister and Israel Hayom is a newspaper reportedly established to help him politically. Seeing the list and number of phone conversations would help the public better understand the prime minister’s relationship with the newspaper as well as its purpose. It would be an important step in government transparency, which is something we support in a democracy like Israel’s which is constantly being tested between the public’s right to know and the state’s security needs.

Also, surely by now Netanyahu would be used to being in the public eye as the nation’s highest public servant. He knows how much Israelis are naturally concerned about his health, for example, which is why he never thought to withhold the news of medical procedures that might affect his ability to govern.

This decision though needs to be looked at from the opposite direction – that of the media. If the list of phone calls is published we will know more about the prime minister’s dealings but we will also be undermining journalists’ ability to do their job at the same time.

The press needs to be able to cultivate and establish confidential relationships with government officials. That is how the media can achieve its objectives and fulfill its role of serving as a watchdog of democracy.

Once the Netanyahu-Israel Hayom list is published, what will stop the court from ordering other government officials to reveal the number of conversations they have with the press?

Whistle-blowers who discover corruption might be too scared to speak up and politicians will clamp their mouths shut, afraid of the pushback if one day the amount of time they spend speaking to the press is revealed.

This decision sets a dangerous precedent that could turn into a slippery slope that will backfire on all journalists who rely on the confidentiality of their conversations with government officials to get their job done.

This decision is harmful for democracy. Just as clients need to be able to speak freely with their lawyers and rely on attorney-client privilege, politicians and government officials need to be able to speak freely with the press. This is one of the pillars of democracy.

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