Media Comment: Must journalists respect the law?

The reporter’s instinct that someone must be guilty pushes her or him to try and prove the culprit’s offenses.

Photojournalists photographers journalists reporters 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Photojournalists photographers journalists reporters 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
In the 1998 movie film Deep Impact, the US treasury secretary, played by James Cromwell, attempts to persuade a reporter to refrain from investigating a story. He turns to her and says: “Look, I know you’re just a reporter, but you used to be a person, right?” Investigative reporting presents ethical and moral challenges. The reporter’s instinct that someone must be guilty pushes her or him to try and prove the culprit’s offenses.
Material is typically fed to the reporter through sources and leaks and is often anonymous. The reporter must judge whether the information is reliable or not, and even if convinced that a crime took place, where are the limits? Is the journalist above the law? In 2009, in the United States, State Department adviser Stephen Kim allegedly revealed information concerning North Korea to Fox News’ chief Washington correspondent, James Rosen.
Rosen’s movements in and out of the State Department were then tracked by the FBI, which traced the timing of his calls, and obtained a search warrant to read his emails. US law makes it a criminal act to publish classified information revealing government cryptography or communications intelligence.
Did Rosen do the right thing? He felt compelled to fulfill his professional calling; do we praise him for this? Is he a role model or a criminal? Another case is that of former UK News of the World’s Dan Evans. He was charged last month with conspiring to intercept communications (a.k.a. phone hacking) of well-known people. The phone hacking scandal of two years ago resulted in some 60 journalists arrested with 27 having been charged and 12 cleared. Was Evans a crusader, seeking information and upholding the public’s right to know, or was he a criminal? Israel has its own such scandals.
The journalists involved often justify their actions by charging that their investigative abilities are hampered by those “evil forces of fascism who have taken over our democracy.”
They appeal to the court of public opinion to try and evade conviction for their infractions.
A most recent case is that of Haaretz’s Uri Blau and Shai Grinberg.
Blau became notorious through the Anat Kam affair. He received classified IDF information which was taken from the army without authorization by soldier Anat Kam. Kam, who is not a reporter, was convicted for espionage and providing confidential information without authorization.
She was sent to jail.
Blau, in July 2012, accepted a plea bargain and was sentenced to four months of community service. But it would seem Blau had no remorse, believing that the message society was giving him was that indeed the journalist should at times take the law into his own hands, which leads us directly to a story that is now unfolding.
BLAU AND his investigator Shai Grinberg were indicted two weeks ago for trespassing. According to police, they illegally entered a religious hostel for young girls in distress.
This story has its beginnings in a lengthy May 27, 2011, report by the due about what they described as “the right-wing organization Lehava, noted for its vehement anti-assimilation views... many of its members are disciples of Meir Kanhane. Yet Hemla [Mercy], a group closely linked to Lehava, receives state funding for its rehabilitation work with Jewish women.” Blau and Grinberg claim that “the heads of the association [Hemla] are outright Kahanists.”
The topic of their investigation was Hemla’s activities in trying to rehabilitate Jewish girls who were romantically involved with Arabs. They quoted the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s legal commentator Moshe Negbi, who said, “There’s no question that opposition to assimilation is a legitimate religious and even Zionist viewpoint, in the context of freedom of expression. But if you carry it out by means of incitement to racism, by violent means or threats, then it crosses the criminal line.”
The very long article in fact does not contain a shred of evidence linking the Hemla organization to any illegal activity, incitement and whatnot.
Blau was frustrated because he was not allowed into the hostel, was not able to interview the inmates and also stonewalled by the authorities.
But there was a more sinister reason for Blau’s frustration. According to the police, Blau and Grinberg entered the Hemla hostel illegally and filmed various rooms (which were empty). They did not know that Hemla’s security cameras had recorded their activities. In a taped telephone interview shortly after the break-in, Grinberg claimed they did not move around in the building but just entered to see if anyone was there and then immediately exited.
The video tape was posted on the Internet, and it is obvious she was lying.
Blau and Grinberg will probably claim in their defense that their activities are the norm of “good” investigative journalism in Israel. In 2006, then-general Elazar Stern leaked data from the personal file of soldier Hanan’el Dayan to then-journalist Yair Lapid. Dayan, in protest against the expulsion from Gaza, refused to shake hands with the IDF’s commanding officer Dan Halutz during the ceremony for outstanding soldiers at the President’s Residence, raising Stern’s wrath.
Dayan went to court and Stern was fined NIS 31,500. The journalist, Lapid, went scot-free. He is today our finance minister, while Stern is a Knesset Member belonging to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party.
In June 2006, Israel Broadcasting Authority journalist Benny Lis illegally opened the door of the Adler family’s private residence in Chavat Maon and filmed inside. This footage was then broadcast in a news report on the IBA’s Channel 1 TV. We complained to the IBA at that time, noting the illegality of Lis’s actions. The IBA defended Lis’s actions. We filed a complaint with police but Lis was not even called in for investigation.
Last July, Channel 10 reporter Doron Herman disguised himself as a religious soldier and entered the Mea She’arim quarter of Jerusalem in an attempt to provoke a violent response from the local residents.
It is illegal in Israel to disguise oneself as a soldier.
Herman was not fishing for information like Blau and Grinberg, he was trying to provoke a potentially violent scene in an attempt to get a “good” story. However, the executive director of Channel 10, Golan Yochpaz, had no regrets. In his response letter, he stated: “Part of the journalistic spirit of our society is the attempt to evaluate and expose issues, failures and injustices. At times, to expose issues of public interest, one must also use disguise.”
The head of the Second Authority for TV and Radio, Dr. Ilan Avisar, accepted Yochpaz’s defense. The journalist, Herman, got off scot-free.
Evidently, the norm in Israel is that journalists are allowed to break the law. Blau’s real failure is not that he broke the law, but that in doing so he was not able to expose anything wrong at the Hemla organization.
Had he succeeded, he might even have been elected to the honor roll of the Ometz organization or the Movement for Quality Government.The authors are, respectively, vice chairman and chairman of Israel’s Media Watch (