Legal Affairs: Why were we kept in the dark?

There has never been a situation like this one, involving an incumbent prime minister and a public which wants to know what the head of their government is suspected of.

Olmert 298 (photo credit: AP)
Olmert 298
(photo credit: AP)
The latest investigation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made it clear that when it comes to deciding whether to impose a court-ordered publication ban on a police investigation, it is the police, rather than the courts, that actually make the decision. The Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court first issued the gag order last week, after preliminary details of the investigation were published in one media outlet. The police immediately rushed to the court to plug the hole. It is not uncommon for the courts to issue gag orders under circumstances like these, and the ease with which they grant these requests has become controversial over the years. The court hears these requests with only one side present and always, or almost always, grants them without serious questioning. In some cases, when the media gets wind of the affair, it appeals the decision. But there has never been a situation like this one, involving an incumbent prime minister and a public that wants to know what the head of their government is suspected of. In the meantime, Channel 10 and Haaretz appealed the gag order. By then, several days had passed. Both Olmert and his longtime aide, Shula Zaken, had been questioned. But the court knew that the police still adamantly opposed the lifting or easing of the gag. The appellants knew they did not stand a chance and, of course, their appeal was rejected. Later that day, after the New York Post had released the name of the key witness in the investigation and details of the allegations against Olmert, the top echelon of the state prosecution met with the police investigation team to discuss the case, including the question of the publication ban. When the police told the Justice Ministry attorneys that it was still too early to ease the ban, the attorneys acquiesced. They will continue to press the matter and keep the police on their toes, but for the time being it is clear that they, too, will accept the police opinion as the final word on the matter. One theory is that the real reason Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz will not agree to reduce the restrictions of the gag order request has nothing at all to do with the investigation. According to this assessment, Mazuz does not want to pour cold water on the public on the eve of celebrations marking the country's 60th independence anniversary by publishing the allegations against the prime minister. Should the gag order be eased on Friday, that would be an indication that public morale was a chief consideration in maintaining it over the holiday. The law does not include public morale as a consideration which the court may take into account when it decides whether to grant such an order. If it was so essential to launch the new investigation just a few days before Remembrance Day and Independence Day, it would cause little more damage to public morale than it already has if the gag were lifted or eased on the eve of these special days. Although we officially know very little about the suspicions against Olmert, and nothing about the facts and details of the case, the fact that this is the fifth time the prime minister is being investigated for suspected wrong-doing cannot help but stretch the public's patience with this long-time politician. Unless the police and the state prosecution are deliberately out to get Olmert - an unlikely proposition held mainly by extreme conspiracy theorists - their actions nevertheless create a general cloud over the PM, if not from a legal point of view, then at least from a moral one. Olmert is a lawyer by profession. It is commonly said of him that he knows very well how to discern between legality and illegality - and that he tends to take his actions to the very edge of the often thin line between them. Perhaps he crossed it this time. Or perhaps all the investigations, even the new one, will be closed without charges being pressed.