'Worried' judge says he's held meetings on risk of meddling

Israel election law ‘screams out’ for update to thwart online abuse, judge warns

Elections Committee head Hanan Melcer implores local media to help guard against illicit foreign intervention, hints Facebook had to be pushed to introduce even belated protections

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Israelis line up to cast their votes at a polling station in Tel Aviv, for the 20th parliament, in the Israeli general elections, on March 17, 2015. (Danielle Shitrit/FLASH90)
Israelis line up to cast their votes at a polling station in Tel Aviv, for the 20th parliament, in the Israeli general elections, on March 17, 2015. (Danielle Shitrit/FLASH90)

The chairman of the Central Elections Committee on Thursday appealed to the Israeli media to help protect the April 9 national elections from illicit foreign interference by, among other precautions, refusing to report news from anonymous sources.

Supreme Court Judge Hanan Melcer said current election law, which does not extend to digital media the basic transparency requirements that have long been applied to traditional media, “screams out” to be updated. But in the absence of such a change, local media needed to take additional care, Melcer said, to prevent the spread of stories that were unsubstantiated and possibly malicious and false. (The ruling Likud party has to date been preventing the necessary unanimous agreement among existing Knesset parties to extend those requirements voluntarily.)

Addressing a press conference at the Knesset called one day before the onset of the 60 day period during which, according to law, the media is banned from facilitating election propaganda, Melcer said journalists should employ their instincts and common sense when it came to any material, notably including survey results, that looked odd.

While freedom of speech was an essential value, even the Americans had understood that it could be limited in order to curb anonymous attempts to meddle in elections, he said.

He urged editors and reporters to check out suspicious communications and take special care with surveys, because of their enormous influence on public opinion. Today’s surveys were often carried out via computers and social media, he noted. “If you see results that don’t look reasonable, be careful,” he said.

Supreme Court Judge Hanan Melcer at a press conference at the Knesset, Jerusalem, February 7, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Melcer said he had called the press conference to reiterate the “rules of the game,” against the backdrop of the Elections Law (Propaganda Methods) of 1959, which “screams out to be corrected.”

That law applies to printed newspapers, TV and radio, but not to digital media.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party has resisted all attempts at amendments to make it do so, halting a bill before its last plenary vote and becoming the only party, last month, to reject a plea from Melcer to apply basic transparency standards to online campaigning.

Melcer said he would announce his decision next week on a petition submitted to the election committee by two lawyers in December to extend the election law to digital platforms and to oblige all political ads online to carry the name of the person or people behind them to identify themselves.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a joint press conference with Austrian President Alexander Van (not seen) at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on February 5, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“The question of anonymity has to be dealt with,” Melcer said, and in principle, all the media — including online sites — had to see itself as obliged by the requirements of the 1959 law.

Indicating that his decision would favor transparency, he referred to a legal opinion he had once written which said that if legislators failed to bring the law up to date to reflect technology’s advance, creative means had to be used instead. “Wine improves with time, but sometimes you have to transfer it to a new container,” he said.

Central Elections Committee chair, Supreme Court Judge Hanan Melcer (L) meets with Facebook’s director of the elections, Katie Harbeth, February 3, 2019. (Courtesy)

Melcer would not be drawn on whether Facebook had agreed to his request earlier this month to bring forward its implementation of a rule to force identification of online political ads, as it has already done in four other countries.

Facebook — with WhatsApp and Instagram, which it owns — is the platform of choice for most Israelis, announced last month that it would introduce rules obliging all Israeli adverts dealing with national or political issues to carry clear information about who paid for them and to require that the identity and location of the person or people behind them be verified.

But the company would not give an exact date for implementation, saying only that the rules would come into force in March, just weeks before the April 9 election.

On Monday, Melcer asked the company to bring forward its plans in order to “preserve the integrity of elections and reduce unfair influence on voters.”

Facebook’s response then was that it would respond “in the near future.”

At Thursday’s press conference, Melcer noted that, “Within the context of our preparations, we are acting on many levels, with the various security agencies, and also with the social platforms. I’ll say it delicately: Their announcement [Facebook’s agreement to force the identification of political ads] did not come as their initiative, voluntarily….We played a role in the issuing of that announcement.”

Without going into further detail, he added, “We want to cooperate with whoever is willing, but there are other means, too.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and reality TV celebrity Eliraz Sadeh poke fun at Channel 13 crime reporter Moshe Nussbaum on a promo for the new Facebook-based Likud TV, February 2, 2019. (Facebook screenshot)

Melcer also said he saw no reason at present, unless he was convinced to the contrary, to find fault with the Likud party’s new TV channel on Facebook, which Netanyahu launched Saturday night, because the identity of those behind it was clear and because its operation was already covered by ethics regulations. But anyone who thought differently was free to petition the committee, he added.

On possible attempts by politicians to use the media for unlawful political propaganda, the judge told the journalists to use their common sense to distinguish between news and campaigning and not to underestimate their power to curb the latter.

“If a politician tries to avoid answering a question and to campaign instead, you have enough ways to deal with it which are more effective, in this case, than an injunction from me. First warn the interviewee. You can stop him or her. And you can not invite him or her back. Believe me, if you do this, everyone will fall into line.”

Since the last Israeli elections in 2015, concerns about online interference in polls have taken center stage on a global scale following allegations of Russian meddling in the US presidential elections, which saw the hacking of Democratic Party emails and the use of Facebook to manipulate information.

Last month, the head of the Shin Bet security services warned that a foreign state “intends to intervene” through cyberattacks in Israel’s national elections in April.

Head of the Shin Bet security service Nadav Argaman attends the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset on November 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Though Nadav Argaman’s statements were made during an event hosted by Friends of Tel Aviv University and attended by a large crowd, Israel’s military censor maintains a gag order on the country he named, as well as on much of what he said.

On Thursday, and despite recent reports of attempts to meddle by countries such as Iran, Melcer refused to say whether his committee was aware of attempts at illicit meddling, including from overseas.

“These things are being dealt with and will be dealt with,” was all he was willing to say.

“I am worried, but we’ve met with all those we need to meet with,” he said, adding that anyone who came across suspect information or needed advice could consult with the national cyber network.

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Computer systems for the elections and political parties were protected, as were the election results, he said. The media, as agents between news sources and the public, could help to prevent illicit influence on public opinion.

Last year’s municipal elections were organized by the Interior Ministry, with the Central Elections Committee restricted to the role of interpreting the law.

For the upcoming national ballot, the committee is responsible for organization too.

Melcer said one change he had implemented was allowing the media to cover petitions.

He also expressed satisfaction that the committee had resisted calls for computerized voting and would continue with the system whereby voters place small pieces of paper bearing the name of their chosen candidate or party into an envelope.

The Dutch had invested more than 40 million Euros in such a system, but dumped the project out of fears raised by the 2016 US elections, he said.

Orly Ades, Director General of the Central Elections Committee. (Facebook)

Orly Ades, director general of the Central Election Committee, said the team was facing new and unknown challenges “where so much is concealed” and was learning as it went along.

She called on the media to help the committee to educate the public on how to read and judge news and online media.

Given the proximity of the elections to the upcoming Passover holidays, which begin just ten days after the ballot, on April 19, and the possibility that many Israelis would already be going on vacation, the committee was planning a public campaign to encourage good voter turnout.

The country had been divided into 19 regional election committees, and some 4,000 polling stations countrywide would be accessible to people with disabilities, she said.

The committee was currently testing a tool to help the sight-impaired, she added.

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