Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is trying to pass a law that would temporarily stop the freedom of information.
The law, proposed by the Ministry of Justice and detailed in a memorandum published earlier this week, argues that Israel’s war with Hamas is so disruptive that government agencies can’t reliably perform a variety of administrative tasks on a normal schedule. Existing law requires government agencies to perform some of their duties, like issuing or denying permits, for example, by a certain deadline. The law aims to suspend those normal schedules until January 2024 because of the war.
This means that Israeli citizens who are currently trying to understand what their government is doing, and specifically how it is handling this crisis, will not get answers until at least the end of January, if not longer, and that is assuming that the suspension will not be extended.
Most news coverage of the war has understandably focused on Hamas’s massacre on October 7, the hostages it took, and Israel’s relentless bombing of the densely populated Gaza Strip, which has already killed thousands of civilians, many of them children.
But, as the proposed law implies, the war is also continuing to cause chaos and disruption for Israeli civilians. Schools are closed, thousands of Israelis have been evacuated from their homes near Gaza and Lebanon in the North, where fighting between Israel and Hezbollah have intensified, and Israel has armed hundreds of volunteer “security squads” fearing internal Jewish-Arab violence.
Israel’s police and legal system is also increasingly taking action against people’s freedom of speech. It has arrested people it claims have expressed pro-Hamas statements on social media, but have also stamped down on unambiguously benign speech in favor of peace and coexistence. Police officers broke into a man’s apartment in Jerusalem and arrested him for hanging a sign against the occupation from his living room. A venue owner in Haifa canceled an event for Jews and Arabs that called to stop the war and return the hostages after getting a warning from the police.
Normally, journalists and citizens who want to know why their schools are closed, or what guidance or law police are citing when they take action, can file a freedom of information request, much like we at 404 Media do on a daily basis. If the proposed law passes, government agencies could ignore these requests for months.
“It’s a very severe blow to the freedom of information,” Rachely Edri, CEO of the Movement for Freedom of Information, told me on a call. The Movement for Freedom of Information is an Israeli public institution composed primarily of lawyers and legal experts who advocate for government transparency and file information requests and appeals. The organization has pried documents from many government agencies that freedom of information law applies to, though that law is more limited in Israel than it is in the U.S. because it doesn’t apply to many security agencies.
However, it’s still a vital tool for the public. Recently, for example, the Movement for Freedom of Information got documents from the Israeli police that outline the protocols it relied on to justify the use of water canons and stun grenades to scatter the historic protests against Netanyahu’s judicial reforms.
Edri said that allowing the government to even temporarily stop responding to information requests is against the public’s interest.
“Generally speaking, the government doesn’t respond to information requests on time anyway,” Edri said. “Often it takes us seven, eight, 10 months to get a response. The timing is important. They’re pushing us off to May or June, and we don’t know what’s going to happen by then. We’re not going to know why shelters weren’t properly protected or why the education system was shut down. We’re an organization that works with journalists, and journalists need to report right now, not in six months.”
Edri told me that, in her opinion, the government put forward the proposal because it doesn’t want the agencies to break the law by not responding to requests on time, which could result in potential lawsuits and fines.
“But the language of the argument is very, very broad, and I don’t think it’s going to stay that way,” she said. “Every request from a citizen to any agency will be delayed by at least three months.”
The Ministry of Justice’s proposal is making a similar argument that agencies in the U.S. made during the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. Agencies still had to comply with information requests from the public, but could also inform the public about anticipated delays. Edri told me that a similar 2020 law that gave Israel’s government agencies various extensions during covid didn’t exempt them from responding to information requests on time. The Movement for Freedom of Information, she said, is looking for the same treatment during the war.
“Democracy is also and primarily tested in moments of crisis,” a letter to the Ministry of Justice by Edri and lawyers representing four other Israeli government transparency advocacy groups said. “Exactly in these extraordinary times of war … there’s supreme importance to the information given to the public and factual reports available to it as it relates to the way in which governing decisions are made and the factual infrastructure and logic at their foundation.”
“We are going through terrible days, on a personal and national level. But every time I get emotional when I discover that the public is not apathetic,” Edri said. “The public cares, it’s committed, and it wants true democracy. Every event like this reminds me that we are not suckers. The response to this [proposed law] today was crazy. People are writing in and going to the Ministry of Justice’s site and commenting that they oppose this. It’s very easy to say, ‘Okay, we’re at war, forget about the freedom of information,’ but the public is not apathetic. It’s very important.”