Public officials need public scrutiny

A proposed law would apply to private citizens only, and that is not a good thing.

justice scales 88 (photo credit: )
justice scales 88
(photo credit: )
The proposed legislation to prevent publication of the names of public officials accused of crime or corruption until the accusations are found to be valid aims to solve a real moral problem. This is a long-outstanding piece of legislation; but as it stands now, it would apply to private citizens only. Including public officials would be a major slippery slope, raising serious forebodings regarding our defense, democracy and moral fiber. Cabinet and Knesset members, judges and rabbis, politicians and other public figures are, by nature of their activities, always in the public eye and thus natural targets of malicious or irresponsible gossip, of police investigations prompted by both political opponents so-called colleagues, and of trial by public lynching. Even when they are completely innocent, they may find themselves tarred with wrongdoing long after they no longer serve in public office. Proponents of the protective ban claim that this tendency is increased by the emergence of a yellow press, which financial considerations of increased circulation may lead to print malicious gossip and scandal-mongering. Like all innocent people, our public figures are entitled to the full protection of the law and of public opinion against such gossip and scandal-mongering, and that is the reputed purpose of the proposed legislation. HOWEVER, all public figures make decisions that affect the livelihoods, quality of life, physical safety of all the citizens; and because of our security situation, they send us and our children to war. So there are other pertinent considerations that must be addressed. The main objection raised by the opponents of the proposed law has been that it curtails the right of the public to know and infringes on the freedom of the press, and is therefore harmful to Israeli democracy. That is a valid objection, since the law would prevent the glare of public spotlight and transparency, probably the most powerful defenses against white-collar crime, corruption, bribery and the abuse of power. Unlike violent crime, which often occurs in public and in full visibility, these forms of wrongdoing are always practiced in secrecy and are well hidden from others; in addition, whereas violent crimes are generally individual acts, corruption only occurs when its practice becomes widely acceptable. PUBLIC knowledge and full disclosure through the media are essential for preventing social crimes, and society is entitled to this protection. Nobody is born to become a public figure, nor is such status something that is predestined. People become public figures of their own free will, relinquishing their private status either out of a desire to serve their people, or for the rewards public office brings. The forging of contacts here and abroad that afterwards translate into very tangible rewards, liberal health and other benefits - both while in office and for many public figures even afterwards; and the concomitant power, honor and respect have made public life one of the most profitable activities in Israel. So, if one makes this free choice and wishes to enjoy the fruits thereof, one cannot at the same time claim the rights of a private citizen. Full exposure, public scrutiny and accountability are the price of public office; anyone unwilling to pay it should remain a private citizen. Public officials, by virtue of their power, are not only required to be clear of illegal acts but also of those that, while legal, are not ethical or moral. JEWISH SOURCES make this quite clear as we see from the following Midrash: After the erection of the Tabernacle, Moses became aware that the people suspected him of profiting materially from the large-scale construction project. He therefore rendered a detailed account of all the money and goods donated for the Tabernacle as well as all expenditures. To the accusations of Korach that he must not only be clear of wrongdoing but even above suspicion, Moses reminded Israel that when he came to Egypt to redeem them, he did not receive any payment for his traveling expenses, nor for those of his family. When it was necessary to dismantle and erect his tent, he did not ask any of them for assistance, or for payment from the public purse. The Prophet Samuel repeated a similar disclaimer of personal benefit from his office. Public figures and all leaders must not only be clean of wrongdoing, they must also be above suspicion. The writer is the founder and was the first director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem.