Photo Credit: Based on Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

The administration of Israel’s courts asked Google Israel to remove from the results of its search engine articles by major media outlets that criticize judges, according to official data that reached Haaretz and were published on Tuesday (הנהלת בתי המשפט פעלה להעלים כתבות ביקורתיות נגד שופטים).

Those requests were submitted as part of the work of a special “Team for the Prevention of Defamation of Judges Online,” which routinely endeavors to remove defamatory or inciting publications against judges from the social networks.

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However, according to Haaretz, this anti-defamation team also asked Google to remove newspaper and news website reports on Judges, including articles from Haaretz, The Marker, Globes and Walla, in some cases without informing those news outlets.

In addition, the courts administration did not report to the Justice Ministry that its people acted to hide the articles, and the courts’ legal counsel, attorney Barak Laser, did not include these efforts in his report to the Knesset.

According to a source in the court administration, those attempts to seek the removal of Google links to the articles were made following complaints from judges, and not as a result of a systemic monitoring of the Internet in search of problematic publications.

In other words, a judge who was offended by a critical story about him or her would call Barak Laser and demand that the offending story be gone from Google.

That’s some judicial power.

A senior Justice Ministry official who dealt with this issue told Haaretz that “this is so absurd, so lacking in authority, so against the freedom of the press … it is a scandal.”

But yours truly would be deeply surprised if heads would roll as a result of this damning report. Why, only a few months ago, the President of Israel’s Supreme Court practically marched into the Knesset plenum and yanked the gavel out of the Speaker’ hand – and when said Speaker complained, the Israeli media hounded him for hating democracy (See Yuli Edelstein – Criticism).

New Court Chief Justice (Asher Grunis, with retired Chief Beinish), old Court overreach.
Chief Justice Asher Grunis with retired Chief Beinish. / Yossi Zamir/Flash90

The anti-defamation team was set up during the tenure of former Supreme Court President Asher Grunis, with a mandate to remove defaming posts against judges on social media. But as it turns out, in addition to contacting the social networks, the team also warned citizens who posted unkind posts that if those were not removed, the courts administration might take legal action against them.

That, too, is pretty amazing judicial power. I’m never walking by a court house with my lunch money.

In 2018, the Movement for Governance and Democracy filed a complaint about the work of the team, following which Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri temporarily froze the team and ordered the convening of a joint committee comprising the administration of the courts, the advisory and legislative department of the Justice Ministry and the cyber department of the State Attorney’s Office, to examine the working procedure of the courts’ administration.

Once the committee’s work was completed, the Justice Ministry decided to restrict the staff’s action so that, among other things, it would not be allowed to contact citizens and would not be able to maintain a database with the names of those who published abusive posts.

They really did that, Israel’s democracy-loving, liberal judges.

But the court administration did not report to the joint committee that it was acting not only to remove posts from social networks but also demanded that the Google search engine remove legitimate media stories from Google’s search results.

Laser, too, during a Knesset debate in 2018 in which the team was required to present its work, did not report that his staff had acted to remove legitimate media publications from Google.

“We have written an explicit work procedure whose purpose is to make sure that our activities focus only on the serious things, which constitute an incitement to violence against judges,” Laser told the Knesset.

However, a review of the list of articles that the courts’ management sought to remove from Google’s search results reveals that these are straight journalistic reports, which do not infringe on the judges’ privacy nor incite to violence against them. They merely report on unkind things the judges don’t want the world to know about them.

In 2015, the courts management sought to remove a report by Hadas Magen which was published by Globes in 2005, according to which “Attorney General Menachem Mazuz decided to close the investigation against Judge Jamil Nasser, a Justice of the Peace in Acre, on suspicion of receiving a benefit fraudulently, for lack of sufficient evidence.”

In 2016, the courts administration asked Google to remove from the search results a report stating that the Ombudsman for complaints against Judges, Eliezer Goldberg, had received the Ometz movement’s complaint against a reprimand letter sent by former Military Advocate General Menachem Finkelstein—currently vice president of the Central District Court—to former Defense Minister Ehud Barak, where he expressed his “puzzlement and disappointment” that Barak appointed Brigadier General Adi Efroni and not Colonel Sharon Afek as his successor in the military justice system.

In 2018, the courts administration asked Google to remove from its search results an article by Revital Hovel in Haaretz, titled “The committee headed by Ayelet Shaked led to the appointment of a defense attorney who was negligent as a judge.”

Ouch, that could be incitement against negligent judges, slippery slope there…

And in 2018, the courts administration sought to remove from Google’s search results an article by Ben Zion Citrin in The Marker from 2004, about the request of then chairman of the Knesset Constitution Committee, MK Michael Eitan, to suspend Judge Ido Rosin, currently Vice President of the Magistrate’s Court in Be’er Sheva, pending final clarification of a complaint filed against him.

The court administration stated in response to today’s report that “on December 11, 2019, an updated version of the work and control procedure of the director of the courts for handling abusive publications on the Internet came into force” and the links mentioned in the article in Haaretz “relate to old publications from before the procedure.”

The Justice Department’s response confirms that the courts management did not report to the joint committee regarding requests from Google to remove information from the search engine.

This is another in a long list of revelations showing clearly that the judicial system holds itself above the law and above the legislature.

Welcome to the partial Israeli democracy. Try not to insult our judges.

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