Last week, Israel’s highest appeals court, the Supreme Court, issued a ruling on the Ilana Dayan case (in which the presenter of an investigative journalism television program appealed a lower court decision compelling her and the network to pay an IDF officer NIS 30,000 in damages for defamation). The case presented the court with a fundamental question on the essence of Israeli democracy.
The case began when Ilana Dayan aired an expose on the accidental death of a 13-year-old girl who entered an IDF compound in Gaza. She was mistaken for a terrorist and shot dead. The officer who shot her, who was acquitted of any wrongdoing by a military court, sued the program for allegedly insinuating that he had acted maliciously.
The case raised the fundamental question which is more important: human dignity or freedom of expression and democracy? Esteemed justices Eliezer Rivlin, Uzi Fogelman and Yitzhak Amit decided that democracy trumps human dignity, and upheld Dayan’s appeal. True, the IDF officer did sustain harm, and true, Dayan did provide a misleading representation and half-truths in her program, but the justices felt that the freedom of the press was more important. They preferred the method over the objective.
Some 1,000 years ago, Nachmanides coined the expression “naval birshut hatorah,” which translates roughly as a villain under the auspices of the Torah. It is used to describe a man who observes all the laws of the Torah but still behaves in a manner contrary to the spirit of the law. It seems that this expression applies here: If we accept the Supreme Court ruling and concede that forcing the media to verify the truth of their reports would harm the freedom to report their findings, a misleading report is still a long way from decent.
Dayan’s expose will not serve as a model of decency and ethics in the media. On the contrary, this program, and the litigation that followed, will be taught in communications schools as an example of extreme exploitation of democracy to sell a story. The fact that the soldier had put his life on the line to protect his country, and that he had fulfilled his job adequately, weren’t featured in Dayan’s expose, to say the least. Apparently, the story was more important than human dignity.
Ms. Dayan, you can still fix this. You can be the bigger woman: Convene a press conference and admit that you were wrong. You can be magnanimous and apologize to the soldier and his family for the anguish that you caused them, as a token of your sincerity. If you do this, this affair can become a model of how a media personality should behave. There is no need for courts – it would suffice if the media, which you represent, were to hold itself to high ethical standards in order to protect freedom of expression. Are you the bigger woman?
The writer is the chairman of Israel’s Media Watch.