Covering Moshe Katsav

The case of the former president provided opportunity to make unequivocally clear, including via news media, that no form of sexual harassment is acceptable, no matter who perpetrates it.

Katsav (photo credit: Mor Aloni)
(photo credit: Mor Aloni)
There has been much discussion of the purportedly damaging role the media has played in “demonizing” Moshe Katsav. Israel Press Council President Dalia Dorner, a former Supreme Court justice, argued Tuesday on Army Radio before the former president’s sentence was handed down that newspaper headlines calling to send him to prison might be illegal because they constituted attempts to influence the court decision, although she admitted that the judges probably would not be swayed by a few bombastic headlines.
Dorner was also concerned that the headlines might undermine the legitimacy of the justice system by creating an atmosphere in which anything less than imprisonment for Katsav would be considered unacceptable. She did not, however, explain why the public would be tempted to trust the assessment of a sensationalist journalist over that of an experienced district court judge.
One of the reasons that Tel Aviv District Court Judge Judith Shevach, in her minority opinion, called for a certain leniency in sentencing Katsav was because he had suffered at the hands of the news media. Thus, Shevach ruled, Katsav should receive a four-year prison sentence instead of the seven years determined by majority judges George Karra and Miriam Sokolov.
A “shadow trial” had taken place in the news media parallel to the one that went on in the courtroom, lamented Shevach.
“Witnesses were interviewed freely, testimonies were given, gradually all red lines were crossed, and efforts to prove guilt or innocence were redirected from the court room to the TV screen,” she said.
But what are Shevach and Dorner and other critics of the media to expect? As a public figure, Katsav would have known that his despicable acts, if discovered, would receive extensive media exposure. While Katsav attacked the news media, in part for their intrusive coverage, his top-notch legal defense team utilized the same media exposure.
AS JUDGES Karra and Sokolov pointed out, Katsav behaved like the “worst of criminals” at a time when he served in a position “that symbolized more than any other [state role], law, order and proper governance.” They made special mention of the fact that Katsav was actually serving as president when he perpetrated two counts of sexual harassment – one in 2003 against H., his office manager, and one in 2005, against L., his secretary.
The judges also noted that one of the incidents took place inside the president’s residence. Katzav had exploited his powers for his own base desire and in the process had sullied his title. And this reflected grimly on Israeli society as a whole.
In her groundbreaking 1979 book Sexual Harassment of Working Women, feminist law professor Catherine MacKinnon argued that sexual harassment perpetuates gender discrimination because the act reinforces the social inequality of women. In this formulation, Moshe Katsav’s crime should be judged not only in accordance with the unfathomable pain and damage he personally caused his victims. It should also be seen as a public act that cynically enlisted our honorable institution of the presidency to perpetuate gender inequality and the objectification of women.
However unfortunately, the conviction and then the sentencing of Katsav provided unique opportunities to uphold women’s equality. In both cases the Tel Aviv District Court rose to the occasion. The media’s extensive coverage of Katsav’s fall drove home the important message that a very public figure who dares to rape and sexually harass would be brought to justice in a very public manner.
By prominently documenting the case, the media performed the necessary service of further delegitimizing the remnants of an old patriarchal Israeli ethos that, for instance, viewed a certain amount of rakishness as integral to the “new Jew” masculinity. Lingering cultural ambiguities about “what she means when she says no,” to paraphrase a popular song of the 1960s by Dan Almagor, were duly cleared up.
THERE ARE historical precedents for news media’s important role in eradicating sexual harassment. In the 1990s, reports critical of a district court decision to acquit young men implicated in the Kibbutz Shomrat rape led to an appeal to the Supreme Court. The lower court’s ruling was overturned and several of the young men were sent to prison. The Supreme Court’s decision on Shomrat was a watershed for women’s rights because it recognized that rape did not necessarily entail overt physical coercion.
The case of Moshe Katsav debased our presidency and caused tremendous suffering to his victims. It also provided the opportunity to make unequivocally clear, including via the news media, that no form of sexual harassment is acceptable, no matter who perpetrates it.