Knesset's ban on photographers limits press freedom. Let them in!

Barring photographers is something altogether different and their absence limits the public’s ability to truly gauge what is going on in their parliament.

Lawmakers are seen in the Knesset plenum during the preliminary vote to dissolve the Knesset on December 2, 2020.. (photo credit: KNESSET SPOKESPERSON/DANI SHEM TOV)
Lawmakers are seen in the Knesset plenum during the preliminary vote to dissolve the Knesset on December 2, 2020..
(photo credit: KNESSET SPOKESPERSON/DANI SHEM TOV)
If, as the well-worn adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, then the public is missing out on an entire conversation since press photographers have been banned from the Knesset plenum because of coronavirus.
That’s right, because of COVID-19 social distancing requirements, the 120 Knesset MKs, who used to sit in close proximity on the Knesset floor, need to be spread out. Some of the MKs are still sitting in their assigned swivel chairs on the floor, but others have been moved upstairs to the balcony, an area once reserved for reporters, photographers and visitors, who have since been banished from the plenum altogether.
Visitors, obviously, will just need to wait until the virus passes before catching a glimpse of Israeli democracy in action. While it may be unfortunate, it is not the end of the world.
Reporters, like everyone else, can watch the proceedings live on the Knesset Channel. This may not be the same as being in the room, thereby seeing who is talking to whom, who is sleeping, who is constantly heckling – the little touches that provide important color and nuance to what could otherwise be dry reports about who said what from the lectern – it is an imposition that, given the seriousness of the pandemic, is tolerable.
But barring photographers is something altogether different and their absence limits the public’s ability to truly gauge what is going on in their parliament.
The airwaves were full of reports Tuesday morning of a dramatic late-night Knesset session where four coalition renegades strode into the plenum at the very last minute to vote down a bill that would have pushed off the Knesset’s dissolution for at least another week.
But a survey of Wednesday’s newspapers did not reveal a single picture illustrating that drama. No picture of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reaction when the vote tally was announced, no shot of Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s empty chair, no photo of coalition and opposition MKs yelling at each other and wildly remonstrating. Rather, there were nondescript pictures provided by the Knesset spokesman of masked MKs milling around.
And therein lies the problem. For weeks, the photo images coming out of the plenum have been provided by the spokesman, and while their technical quality may be acceptable – the subjects are in focus and the lighting is good – these are not photographs that depict the drama of the moment.
The Knesset spokesman is not going to share with the press any picture that may embarrass anyone, such as two MKs screaming at each other, or a minister sleeping during the prime minister’s speech. But those are precisely the types of pictures the public needs to see to gain a real sense of what is going on. Sending out sanitized photos of crucial legislative proceedings is the bread and butter of authoritarian regimes, not the stuff of which free, robust, and critical democracies like Israel are made.
Which is not to say we are unaware of the dangers of corona, or the need to provide a safe environment for the MKs. Nor are we suggesting that the plenum doors be flung wide open and press photographers be allowed to clamber over each other and anyone in their way to get a good shot.
But there is quite a gap between that type of free-for-all and the sanitized pictures the Knesset spokesman hands out. The Knesset could, for instance, allow one pool photographer into the plenum to take pictures, thereby ensuring that the source of the photos is not someone whose job is to make the Knesset look good.
Some may considers this petty quibbling and ask why it matters.
It’s important for two reasons. First, because the public deserves a see the Knesset proceedings, which hugely impact people’s lives, through an unfiltered lens. And second, because there is nothing more permanent than a short-term arrangement. The Knesset, as well as the politicians who occupy it, may get used to this current situation and come to like it because it saves them embarrassment, and they would want to preserve it even after the coronavirus is gone.
But they must know now that banning photographers is a serious intrusion on press freedom, and that it must stop before it becomes the new normal.