Translated by Ari Heistein
A few days ago one of Aryeh Deri’s guys called me. He wanted credit where credit was due. Did you see how
we changed the policy regarding publishing the names of businesses that have a heter (permission) to work on Shabbat (Saturday)? Just yesterday the minister heard about this and immediately instructed that it be published, the man explained to me. The truth is, the honorable man added, none of the high level ministry officials understood why this information had not been passed on earlier. Of course. Why not publish it? Perhaps you could give a round of applause, for once, he asked of me.
I will censure my answer for this post. It was not diplomatic. So, what’s the story?
Throughout Naftali Bennet’s tenure as the minister of finance, there was a debate about this fateful issue. The Movement for Freedom of Information (and also some MKs like Tamar Zandberg) asked to know which authorized businesses received a heter to work on Saturday. Turn the world upside down searching for it, and you will still not find one good reason not to provide that information. But Bennet’s ministry of finance did not want to give it. God only knows why.
They gave delayed responses, dragging their feet and mumbling something about trade secrets—a business that operates on Saturday would certainly like to keep that a secret, so they said they need to ask every business that operates on Saturday what their stance is on exposing that top secret information. Eventually the Movement for Freedom of Information got tired of it. Then seven months ago a petition was filed to compel the ministry to expose its “nuclear secrets.” Then the ministry began to drag its feet again, as the prosecutor’s office (in the name of the ministry of finance) explained in January of that year that the appointment to present a response was “accidentally dropped from the calendar”—it happens to the best of us—but they agreed to send the requested material anyway. Somehow, it didn’t happen. They never sent it.
Then comes May 2015. Not any day in May, but the 18th of the month, about 48 hours after Netanyahu’s government was sworn in. 24 hours after Aryeh Deri entered the ministry of finance. Well, what do you know, but that was the exact time that the hearing on this subject was supposed to take place. Before the hearing, Michal Shalem, a prosecutor from the Jerusalem district attorney’s office, wrote “the new minister is interested in reviewing the matter in light of the fact that many of the business owners who have a heter have not responded to the ministry’s inquiry… even if the hearing on this issue does take place, I will not have a position [opposing the release of this information] to present on the matter so it seems pointless to hold the hearing.”
Deri entered the ministry and on his first day at work, incredibly, he already took care of the issue of publishing the heters for businesses on Saturday. He didn’t just take care of it, he already has new thoughts on it. Unbelievable. What an effective minister. But wait a minute, did Deri’s man just say yesterday, three weeks after that hearing, that the minister just heard about it? Could it be that the honorable prosecutor was passing on falsified information? That is not the thing about this that drives me crazy. And the worst of it is not even the fact that those same ministry of finance officials that backed Bennet’s decision not to disclose the information apparently did a 180 degree turn and now support Deri’s decision to provide the data.
What makes me crazy? That I only learned about Deri’s decision from an official message from the ministry of finance. The ministry announced that it decided to disseminate this information to the public. How great! The significance of this is that a journalist or socially minded organization can struggle for the release of information, pay money, get upset, hire lawyers but when the government ministry sees that the judge (Moshe Sobel in this case) isn’t going along with them, they release that information to the public just so that the petition against them will not bear any fruit and that there will not be any motivation to petition in the future.
This is not the first time we have encountered this. In fact, this really appears to be a new policy of the government ministries in their war on transparency, and unfortunately it aims have been echoed in the awful decision of the unit for freedom of information in the ministry of justice, the very same unit that is supposed to promote transparency.
Of all the things in the world this unit could have done for the sake of transparency, it chose to establish a new procedure that mandated that any information that the government agreed to release, would be uploaded to the internet. How wonderful!? How. Transparent. Actually, this just appears to be wonderful and transparent.
The significance from the government’s perspective is very clear. It is a creative way to fight against the motivation for media outlets to submit requests for information. Why you ask? Because even if you manage to obtain the information, you will not be the first to publish it, because the government decided to do so themselves.
Of course, you are thinking, is credit really that important to you? The answer is a definite yes. Not just for me, but for every journalist and media outlet, because one does not continue to work tirelessly to access information if in the end there is no reward because the information, if it is released, is released to the public. So journalists who expend their resources to make requests for freedom of information, will submit fewer requests. There is one way to combat these insidious actions of the ministry of finance—to submit more and more requests and also for Judge Sobel, for example, to rule that the government pay for the individual’s legal fees and comment in his ruling about the behavior of the honorable state prosecutor.