Behind the Lines: Trial by fury

Over the past two decades, judges have maintained the illusion that they are above all the media frenzy.

press media photographer (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
press media photographer
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Long before his day of judgment in Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court on Wednesday, Haim Ramon had won his case hands down in another court - the media. This was not lost on the three judges, who added a damning indictment of the press at the end of their long and devastating verdict. "In our opinion" they wrote, "in this case all the red lines were crossed and the concept of sub judice was dragged down to unheard of depths. The content of the testimonies were published in the media before the witnesses were heard in court; in some cases this caused 'contamination' of the evidence. The prohibition of publishing the complainant's testimony was crudely broken by the publication of the confrontation, which was an integral part of the testimony. Evidence from the case, including photographs, was publicized before the court issued its verdict. The media made improper use of lie-detector tests on the last three defense witnesses in order to create the impression that the trial was being carried out in the media, not the court. "It is our feeling that attempts were made, at times by hidden messages, at times blatantly, to pervert justice. Our hearts were heavy with this. We judges have only the voice of our conscience to guide us. These serious practices that appeared during the case cannot remain unchallenged. Those responsible for the law-enforcement system should put their minds to these improper practices and take the necessary steps." These final clauses went almost unnoticed in the blanket coverage of Ramon's verdict, but they infuriated strategic consultant Roni Rimon. "The court is complaining here that there was a media campaign designed to deflect it," he said. "I would have been very happy to read such a sentence in the many cases in which the police and State Attorney's Office manipulated the press in the other direction. That never happened, I'm sorry to say. The police and State Attorney's Office always have the advantage; they're making the charges and creating the headlines against any public figure who is under investigation." Rimon should know what he's talking about. It might be standard procedure nowadays for any politician or celebrity to hire a PR expert, along with a team of lawyers, the moment an investigation against him gets under way, but 10 years ago it was unheard of. The veteran press adviser was the local pioneer of media-handling during legal proceedings. Among his high-profile clients were Ehud Olmert, in the "Likud invoices" trial in 1997; Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, suspected two years ago of taking part in the abduction of daughter's suitor; and Omri Sharon in his corruption trial. According to Rimon, bringing in a professional to handle the media is unavoidable for a public figure brought to trial: "He has to defend himself in two arenas, the court of law and the court of public opinion." Rimon insists that the only targets of his efforts are the media and the public: "Our job is to defend a man's reputation. Since these are professional judges, not members of a jury, I believe that the influence on them is negligible, not that it doesn't exist." But in this case, the judges made it quite clear that they were offended by the defendant's media campaign. Not that Ramon needed a media adviser; no one in three decades in politics has succeeded in assembling a corps of admiring journalists to rival his. He managed his own battle in the press, to devastating effect. Save for an extremely small number of journalists who kept to an independent agenda, the entire media - from the court reporters out in the field to the premier league of commentators and pundits - were united in the view that this was a case that should never have been brought to trial, confidently predicting Ramon's acquittal and a heavy blow to the law-enforcement system headed by Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz. They were backed up the opinions of formidable legal experts, the likes of former justice minister Amnon Rubinstein, and veteran feminist activists such as Shulamit Aloni. It was an unprecedented, orchestrated counteroffensive, conducted on all levels. TOWARD THE end it descended to farce, when the two large dailies, Yediot Aharonot and Ma'ariv, even published the lie-detector test results of three witnesses for the defense. In retrospect, it seems that Ramon was too successful and achieved overkill. The judges were careful in their wording, making it quite clear that the media had no influence over their verdict. But it's hard to avoid the impression that the awareness of the trauma that even a partial acquittal would have caused the justice system did not play a part in their deliberations. Despite the result, Rimon is convinced that Ramon had no choice but to fight back through the media. "I can't recall such a case when the legal elements joined together in such a way - from the police, who hid evidence; the attorney-general, who discussed the case with the press; and the president of the Supreme Court, who publicly made her views on the case known and showed the way for the judges. What [Ramon] did was only natural; I think he made the right moves." There are no juries in our justice system; its fundamental assumption is that those sitting in judgment - professional jurists - are capable of holding dispassionate and objective proceedings and deliberations, reaching their verdict unaffected by influences from outside the court. Over the past two decades, despite ever-increasing intrusion of the media into every stage of the legal process, judges have maintained the illusion that they are above all this. Accordingly, they have allowed the law of sub judice, drawn up to limit the media's influence on court proceedings while they are taking place, to languish into irrelevance. But is it at all reasonable to believe that the attorney-general, upon deciding whether to press charges against a president, prime minister or cabinet member, does not take the public atmosphere - fuelled by the media - into consideration? Or that judges are not tempted to play to the press gallery - and that those on the lower rungs of the judicial ladder are capable of detaching themselves from the consideration of how their decisions will affect their future promotions? Dr, Aviad Hacohen, dean of the Shaarei Mishpat Law College and an expert on constitutional law, is convinced that is not the case. "I don't believe there was a legal conspiracy against Ramon, that the judges received instructions from above or that they were punishing him for the media campaign," he said. On the other hand, he agrees that it had some effect and Ramon, ultimately caused himself damage by achieving media overkill: "Of course the judges did not like what was going on, especially the fact that the media had already acquitted Ramon months ago. Journalists took things way too far, for example when they singled out Judge Hayuta Kochan [who presided in the case], writing that she is a serial guilty-sentencer. After being described in that way, whatever her verdict, she would come out badly. "All this highlights the problem of sub judice legislation. Judges are human. They read the papers like the rest of us; and, of course, there is a subconscious effect. Just imagine what might happen if the judges think President Moshe Katsav should be acquitted, after all that has been written about his case." Hacohen disagrees though with the Ramon case judges about what should be done. "The sub judice issue must be addressed," he said, "but in a democratic society it can't be by the courts enforcing it. No law can efficiently limit the reporting from the courts; it is a matter for the Press Council and, above all else, the journalists' ethics."