Policing books

Clamping down as the censor is doing on Olmert’s freedom of speech is the sort of action carried out by autocratic regimes that do not see themselves as committed to democratic ideals.

June 19, 2017 07:42
3 minute read.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is seen in Jerusalem District Court

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is seen in Jerusalem District Court. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Last Thursday, the police stormed the Yediot Books publishing house in Rishon Lezion. The reason? Police claimed they were after classified documents that former prime minister Ehud Olmert purportedly provided to Yediot Aharonot from his Ma’asiyahu Prison cell.

From what has been published so far, it seems that some of the chapters in an autobiography being written by Olmert are based on classified materials.

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The material was supposed to be transferred by Olmert’s attorneys to the Defense Ministry for clearance before they would be incorporated into a book.

But according to the claim by the police, some material was transferred directly to the publisher via his attorney without first receiving the approval of ministry officials.

In an unusual move, the State Prosecutor’s Office ordered the police to confiscate the material. A search was carried out in the offices of one of Olmert’s lawyers and in the home of Yehuda Yaari, who is editing Olmert’s memoirs.

While it is important that law enforcers work to prevent security breaches that could compromise Israel’s stability and well-being, in this case, it is difficult to escape the impression of overzealousness.

Was the security of Israel the main concern of the State Prosecutor in its decision to raid Yediot’s publishing house? What could have been in Olmert’s manuscript to warrant such draconian measures? If the sensitive material that might have been included in Olmert’s manuscript has already been published around the world, it is difficult to understand what the military censor is doing. What we are left with is a feeling there is a witch hunt against a former prime minister who – even if he is writing about what they fear he might be – it is unclear how he might compromise Israeli security by publishing what has already been published.

Clamping down as the censor is doing on Olmert’s freedom of speech is the sort of action carried out by autocratic regimes that do not see themselves as committed to democratic ideals.

It is the sort of thing that is done in Istanbul, not in Rishon Lezion. Even more inexplicable and antidemocratic is that the publishing house, in any event, planned to bring the book’s contents before the military censor and a special committee for final approval before publication.

The state prosecutor must know that in previous instances, when Olmert was asked to refrain from publishing material on this military operation, he complied.

Particularly problematic is the timing of the raid.

Olmert is serving a 27-month sentence on corruption convictions and is currently in the process of requesting a lessening of his prison sentence for good behavior.

The state prosecutor tried to use the raid and the probe as reasons for postponing a meeting with the Ma’asiyahu Prison parole board that is dealing with Olmert’s request for a one-third reduction of his prison sentence.

But a judge denied that request by the state prosecutor, and Olmert did meet Sunday with the parole board.

The state prosecutor is expected to oppose a reduction of Olmert’s sentence. Even if Olmert’s behavior is not tantamount to a criminal act, claims the state prosecutor, it reflects negatively on his request for a shortened sentence for good behavior.

So what is the state prosecutor’s motivation? Is it to protect Israel’s security or to torpedo Olmert’s early release from prison? It is true that Olmert violated the trust of the Israeli public by engaging in acts of corruption as an elected official. And he should be in prison for them. This sends an important message that even the most powerful leader in Israel is not beyond the reach of the law.

Such is the hallmark of Israel’s robust democracy.

But now, the state prosecutor is tarnishing Israel’s good name as a democracy that upholds basic freedoms, including respect for privacy and freedom of expression.

The attorney-general could have approached Yediot and requested the suspicious material without resorting to the intimidation of a raid. It is not too late to reverse course. The state prosecutor and the censor should admit that they went too far.

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