Misplaced protection

The greatest antidote to sleaze and malfeasance by those in power is the power of the press.

Katsav 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Katsav 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The Knesset yesterday passed in a preliminary reading and in record time a bill that would forbid publication of a suspect's name until an actual indictment was presented. This came only two days after the bill was approved by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation. Similar amendments proposed previously all failed to get off the ground. The present initiative, however, is judged as highly likely to become law. Superficially it appears a laudable attempt to protect individual rights, and indeed, the Public Defender's Office enthusiastically backs it. The bill's co-sponsors, MKs Robert Ilatov and Yosef Shagal of Israel Beiteinu, stipulate that only the courts will be empowered to disclose suspects' names, "thereby preventing damage to suspects who are never charged. The right to privacy and good reputation supersedes the right of the public to know and of the freedom of the press." The present situation is far from perfect. Suspects already do possess legal options to block the exposure of their identities. Ever since 2002, they have been entitled to demand gag orders during the investigative phase. But since utilizing this option requires well-informed suspects with savvy legal aides who can win the race against time often built into the process, it may be that more elastic procedures and a better procedure for informing suspects of their rights should be mandated. Equally desirable would be clamping down on unacceptable serial police leaks, often emanating from nothing more than a desire by certain officers to ingratiate themselves with influential reporters. Yet the bill that has so swiftly surmounted its first Knesset hurdle appears to aim at more than commendably safeguarding ordinary citizens caught unjustly in a web of unfortunate circumstances. Had this been the case, the bill's authors, the ministers who sanctioned it and the MKs who voted for it would have excluded elected representatives, public servants and top corporate executives from the category of suspects whose identities should be shielded from public knowledge. The fact that this wasn't done heightens misgivings that the legislators are really most interested in seeking to protect their own. Were this law already in force, it should be noted, the first we would have heard of ex-president Moshe Katzav's alleged escapades would have been the reaching of his now-contested plea bargain. Ex-finance minister Avraham Hirchson might well have stayed in office until formal charges were tendered, none of the accusations against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would be known, and we would have heard only far later about the investigations against Ariel Sharon and his sons, and Ehud Barak's bogus NGO capers. Moreover, the veil of secrecy would have prevented more witnesses from coming forth with more information, thereby very directly obstructing the course of justice. Anyone who voluntarily chooses to vie for the clout that politics or celebrity can confer must also take into account the perils inherent in transparency. Our higher-ups must live up to a higher level of accountability. By their own choice, they forfeit the anonymity that is the inherent right of ordinary citizens (perhaps with the exception of sex crimes, especially pedophilia, in which publicity is a particularly essential tool in both gaining further testimony and warning off potential victims). Blanket identity-protection is overkill of the sort that must raise doubts. Even if our MKs were motivated by the purest of intentions, the bill they are in the process of supporting is potentially prone to shelter corrupt politicians and pervert the cause of justice. The irony is that by protecting some politicians, our legislators might place all their colleagues under suspicion. The rumor mill is inevitably switched into hyperactive mode when the press is muzzled. Thus, instead of knowing which minister is under scrutiny, the public will learn that "a minister" is under investigation, rendering all members of the government suspect. In a democratic society, the greatest antidote to sleaze and malfeasance by those in power is the power of the press. Limiting that power is tantamount to encouraging dishonesty in high places. In considering their support for this bill as it moves forward, our legislators should recall the words of the late US Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis: "Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."