Journalists union warns of damaging blow to media, democracy

Bill could see journalists jailed for publishing police leaks

Sponsor David Amsalem says he means to target leakers, not reporters; controversial clause ‘won’t even be part of the law, so calm down’

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Likud MK David Amsalem leads the Interior Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on July 11, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Likud MK David Amsalem leads the Interior Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on July 11, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Proposed legislation that would bar police from making recommendations to prosecutors about whether to indict suspects has been amended so that it could target journalists, with a clause providing for prison terms of up to a year for those who publish information leaked from police investigations.

Amid an outcry from the Israeli press, the bill’s sponsor, Likud MK David Amsalem, on Monday said the new draft was aimed to criminalize the leakers of sensitive investigative material, not reporters, and vowed the clause would not appear in the final version of the legislation.

Amsalem’s controversial bill is seen as a measure to curb police authority and an effort to limit the public fallout in corruption probes against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Last week, the bill — which faces opposition from police, the state attorney, and the attorney general — was revised in an apparent effort to shore up coalition support for it.

The new version that is to be presented to lawmakers on Tuesday for a committee debate will now allow for the criminal prosecution of anyone who publishes leaks from a criminal investigation without prior approval from a court. The offense would carry a one-year sentence.

On Sunday, Amsalem denied the revised version was targeting journalists or would stifle free speech.

In a Twitter exchange, he hit back at an editor from Haaretz, which published details of the revised draft, saying the amendment aimed to end the regular leaks from police investigations, and was not targeting journalists.

“[Journalists] were never part of the proposal,” he wrote. “The problem is with the leaker, not the person who publishes it. [The leaks] can only be coming from the police or prosecutors. The bill is directed at them.”

In a subsequent interview with Army Radio, Amsalem vowed his bill “would not damage free press,” and told journalists to “calm down.”

“As far as I’m concerned, we are not going to damage free expression in Israel,” he said. “And there is no reference to journalists in the bill.

“The clause won’t even be part of the bill, so calm down,” Amsalem added. “I don’t know why it was published like that.”

But journalists were quick to point out that the wording of the clause stipulates criminal charges against “those who publish information from an investigation,” rather than against those who leak the information.

The Union of Journalists in Israel expressed opposition to the bill in its current form, calling it “a damaging blow to journalism and democracy.”

Earlier this month, Amsalem’s bill cleared its preliminary reading in the Knesset plenum, with 52 lawmakers in favor and 42 opposed.

In addition to opposition from police, the state attorney, and the attorney general, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home) and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) have reportedly expressed reservations about the bill and have conditioned its advancement on the approval of their respective ministries.

Last week, the Knesset voted to transfer the proposal to the purview of the Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environmental Affairs Committee, which is helmed by Amsalem.

That move was opposed by Jewish Home lawmakers, who sought to keep the bill in the Knesset’s Constitution, Justice and Law Committee, chaired by its own MK Nissan Slomiansky.

Marissa Newman contributed to this report.

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