Media Comment: The wisdom of silence

The law stipulates that a person is innocent until proven guilty. The law also defends the right of the individual to privacy. But the police could not care less.

Roni Alsheich (photo credit: screenshot)
Roni Alsheich
(photo credit: screenshot)
The Israeli media has been having a ball these past years. Leaks from within the Israel Police became a virtual flood. Many of the stories were lush, full of details, often sexually related. For lazy reporters they were manna from heaven. For the people involved, it was probably all too often a reminder that hell does exist.
Consider some of the juicy stories we were exposed to in recent years. On December 28, 2009, Bat Yam Mayor Shlomi Lahiani was arrested in full view of the TV cameras. He was suspected of accepting bribes. Indeed, on December 27, 2015 he began to serve an eight-month sentence. But of course, six years ago he had not yet been indicted.
The law stipulates that a person is innocent until proven guilty. The law also defends the right of the individual to privacy. But the police could not care less. Arresting a mayor creates headlines – a PR coup for the officers involved, likely to lead to promotions later on. Morality and respect for the law? Not among our police, and not our media either.
No one asked who was responsible for inviting the media into this sordid affair, nor as far as we know has any police officer paid the price for such unprofessional activism.
Margalit Tzan’ani is a rather well known TV personality and singer. On August 16, 2011, she was arrested. She was suspected of blackmailing her former producer. Ultimately, she was sentenced to six months of public service. However, when she was still only a suspect somehow pictures of her in police custody reached the media. Were Tzan’ani’s rights upheld by the police and the prison authorities? No. Did Yediot Aharonot, which publicized the photos, respect her right to privacy? No. But who cares? The story was big and those who promoted it profited at the singer’s expense.
Police leaks were so voluminous that the Knesset comptroller committee held a special session to discuss them. This took place in May of 2014.
As reported on the INN website, Amnon Cohen of the Shas Party, who was then chairman of the committee, accused the Israel Police of “leak[ing] information against suspects to improve its public image instead of investing professional efforts to defend the citizens.” Advocate Pini Fishler claimed that “all the transcripts of the investigation of [Yisrael Beytenu head] Avigdor Liberman reached, week after week, the Internet site of journalist Yoav Yitzchak.” He also noted that not a single police investigator was investigated or prosecuted for leaking sensitive material.
The police used the same tactics when embarking upon the investigation of former Labor MK and leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. His advocate, Navot Tel-Tzur, complained bitterly that the investigation was leaked in real time. This pattern repeated itself in almost all cases involving well-known personalities, including the Holyland case.
It is no secret that the Israel Police is in trouble.
Too many of its highest officers had to resign following allegations of misconduct, especially sexual harassment. It was high time someone did something about it, and that someone was Minister Gilad Erdan. He was, perhaps, lucky – as was the public – in failing to appoint Gal Hirsch as police commissioner. Instead, he had the wisdom to appointing Roni Alsheikh, a religious person in his private life and former top official in the Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency), to the post. It would seem that one of Alsheikh’s first orders was for a complete halt to the leaks. This became very evident during the past week, when police were busy tracking down terrorist Nashat Milhem. The lack of leaks infuriated many journalists.
As usual, they would not admit the truth, namely that the leaks drying up meant they actually had to do their jobs. Rather, some of them had the chutzpah to admonish Alsheikh. Yaniv Kubovitz reported in Haaretz that there was severe criticism within the Israel Police over the lack of public information.
He cited an anonymous police officer who claimed that “the need to provide the public with information these days is critical, operational and necessary for the daily lives of the citizens.”
Poppycock. Our lives were not affected by not knowing whether police had or had not found some new evidence concerning the murderer. It is only the lives of the journalists that were affected.
As noted by Yossi Melman of Ma’ariv on January 10: “The Police Commissioner... became aware of the cruelty of bloodthirsty journalists and an impatient public which demand instant gratification.
Reporters and pundits, especially police-related ones, pounced on him and the police without mercy.”
Rafi Mann, a noted academic who deals with media-related issues claimed on the Seventh Eye website that the police should have invested much more in PR during the week of the manhunt. He accused Alsheikh of not understanding that the police works under the public eye and therefore must provide – even on an hourly basis – briefings to the media. Similar criticism was voiced by journalist Dov Gilhar and police reporter Yossi Eli on the Walla website.
The bottom line, of course, is that the murderer was tracked down and the public was informed accordingly.
The police and Shin Bet did their job. Would more police PR have made any difference? Most likely not.
Moreover, such blabbering might also have provided Milhem with information which might have made it even more difficult to locate him.
What the public needs to know is that their law enforcement agencies are doing a professional job.
This is what is really important. The police need to provide the public with confidence in their ability to solve crimes and arrest suspects. The juicy stories, the embarrassing and even the defaming of innocent or even guilty people, are not a public service. Neither the media nor the police should engage in sensationalism for its own sake.
Perhaps Alsheikh’s religious background, which holds to the concept that gossip and slander are not to be tolerated and are detrimental to society, has influenced him in his decision to silence the police. It takes courage to keep silent. Too many of us have the urge to immediately tell all when we know something. This is fodder for the media but poisonous for the well-being of society.
Alsheikh’s silence is a welcome reprieve.
The authors are vice chairman and chairman respectively of Israel’s Media Watch (