Media Comment: Media-assisted legal irresponsibility

We need remind ourselves that all instruments of power, governmental and non-governmental, are never totally free of weaknesses.

A general view shows seagulls in Ashdod port as a storm approaches Israel's shores January 4, 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
A general view shows seagulls in Ashdod port as a storm approaches Israel's shores January 4, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Democracy has become a slogan bandied about by our media too often and too frivolously.
Especially today, Holocaust Remembrance Day, we recall that Hitler’s dictatorship was installed with the aid of the democratic process.
We need remind ourselves that all instruments of power, governmental and non-governmental, are never totally free of weaknesses.
Israel’s democracy is strong and vibrant, even if too many journominous signs suggest that strong forces exist which seek to usurp the democratic process for their own purposes. A free and irreverent media should play a critical role in rooting out and exposing these ugly forces. A free media must stand up to power of all types: political, economic and ideological. Sadly, the Alon Hassan affair is an example of the exact opposite.
Hassan was the all-powerful boss of the employees’ union at the Ashdod Port. He did not hide his use and love of power, leading strikes and assuring that the median salary at the port is among the highest in Israel – NIS 28,000 a month in 2014, the year he had to step down. Hassan was not a particularly endearing person – especially if were not part of his union. He made enemies and his actions led to considerable monetary losses for Israel’s economy. According to his March 2016 indictment, some NIS 22 million in bribes were related to Hassan’s actions. On January 22, 2016, Haaretz wrote that Hassan “has come to symbolize corruption and inefficiency in the public sector.”
Yet Hassan, it turns out, was innocent.
Not being lovable is not sufficient reason for the police and state attorneys to step in. But this is precisely what they did.
With great fanfare, the accusations against Hassan were publicized.
As a result, he lost his earnings, his companies and his freedom.
The police and the state attorneys concluded he was guilty of bribery, blackmail, whitewashing finances and more. Serious stuff, enough to break even strong people.
However, last week, some four years later, the truth came out: Beersheba District Court Justice Joel Eden fully exonerated Hassan.
In his words: “After all the checks, there was no evidence of his cheating and a conflict of interest was not proven. Actions taken as part of a job are not equivalent to fraud and breach of trust. Hassan’s actions were necessary for defending the workers. There is no evidence that Alon Hassan carried out directly or indirectly actions meant to encourage contacts with a company owned by his relatives.”
The response of the prosecutor’s office at the Justice Ministry to Hassan’s accusations, as published on Friday in Israel Hayom, was: “The claims that he was personally persecuted and prosecuted are false and misguided. The indictment was presented to the court after passing the scrutiny of many, including the highest echelons of the State Attorney’s office. They all thought that the evidentiary material was sufficient for [a high chance] of conviction.”
Hassan was an elected official.
He had to step down because some police and Justice Ministry officials used their power, and public funds, to crucify him. Who are these officials? How much money did they waste in terms of salaries, research and other legal necessities, not to mention the court employees, at the expense of the taxpayer? We do not assume for a moment that these officials were settling personal scores, but it is very clear that their professional judgment was and is impaired, to say the least.
In the United States, prosecutors are elected officials and any prosecutor leading such a complex, costly and lengthy case and losing would certainly have to step down. That is true democracy. But here, these same officials will be able to continue using their power frivolously, without any accounting.
The media reported the case broadly, especially due to its implications with regard to the ongoing investigation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his family. However it did not pose the necessary questions to nor did it demand personal responsibility from the police, the attorney-general’s office and others. The reaction was quite different from what should be expected.
When Teva announced widespread layoffs recently, the media was in an uproar, especially against the company directors, who refused to accept personal responsibility for the mistakes or return their remuneration to the company. Yet in the Hassan case, although we do not know the exact figures – and this too should be supplied by the State Attorney’s office – there is no doubt that the expense was many millions of shekels. Years of manpower which could have been used to pursue true criminals were wasted. But the worst of it all was that unelected officials used their power to remove an elected one – Hassan.
This is far from being the first time such an event has occurred in Israel. In 1996, former justice minister Yaakov Neeman was just two months in power when he was indicted for giving false testimony and providing illegal consultation to a witness in the Arye Deri case. He was exonerated fully and became Netanyahu’s finance minister. But at that time no one demanded that heads roll in the prosecutor’s office for this unwarranted and unprofessional interference in the democratic process. The lack of media attention gave the police and the Justice Ministry officials the clear message that they were immune from being held personally responsibility for erroneous or misguided actions.
Israeli democracy paid dearly for this media “lapse.” Yom Kippur War hero and former police minister Avigdor Kahalani was another victim. In the year 2000, he was investigated for supposedly obtaining illegal benefits from Ma’ariv publisher Ofer Nimrodi.
He was indicted for exposing secret information concerning the investigation of Nimrodi, as well as breach of trust and obstruction of justice. It took two years, but he too was fully exonerated. Did anyone take responsibility? Did the media demand it? No, they did not.
Perhaps the most egregious example is that of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman. He was investigated for a period of over 10 years, with the various allegations changing over time. Not one of them held water and he, too, was fully exonerated. The media, for sure, was responsible for churning up a negative characterization of Liberman but again, with no proof. He was unsavory ideologically to many members of the press – but that is their crime, not his.
He paid not only a personal price but also a public one, and this is frightening. Due to the indictment against him concerning his role in appointing Israel’s ambassador to Belarus, he had to resign his post as foreign minister. The indictment was submitted in December 2012 and on November 6, 2013, he was unanimously acquitted.
The ease with which unelected officials behind closed doors can determinate the fate of innocent people cannot be allowed to continue.
It is high time that even in the hallowed corridors of the Justice Ministry accountability and responsibility become the norm rather than the exception.
The writers are members of Israel’s Media Watch (