Freedom of Information Act kills the people’s rights to know

Does the State of Israel believe in transparency? In most democratic societies citizens can obtain records which the Government possess simply by asking for it under FOIA (Freedom of Information Act).  Countries such as the US and UK take it seriously and are proud of their transparency track record.  Israel is an exception.  On the face of things, Israel does have a freedom of Information Act, but almost anybody who tries to invoke it finds himself frustrated in trying to obtain records as the Israeli authorities tend to simply refuse the release of information.

Each ministry in Israel must publish an annual FOIA report. Anybody looking at these reports find them laughable. They are simply reprints of the information available in the ministries’ web site, which contain nothing more than a description of the areas in which the ministry deals with, the various divisions therein, and sometimes the names of officials.  In rare cases there are telephone numbers that nobody answers and in even more rare cases there are emails. Also, you may find there some figures about budgets and some other numbers presented in a very laconic manner, and again do not supply more information than the minimal data in the government web sites.

Otherwise, when a citizen files a FOIA request, in many cases the official in charge can simply ignore it, and not respond. There are no sanctions for failure to respond.  Usually after sending two or three reminders, a letter acknowledging receipt will be mailed out, saying it would take a minimum of 45 days to respond.  In many cases on the 44th day a letter will go out saying that the Government needs an additional 45 days.

When the official response arrives it usually contains laconic citations to the exeptions from FOIA and no information is released.  Such exceptions include:  “the documents cannot be located without investment of human resources which the Government does not have”.  Another exception is that “the documents requested may violate the privacy of a third party”‘, or “:the transcipts of the committee are “internal”, and therefore excepted from FOIA”, and “the documents are not available in the form requested and the Government is not obliged to assemble them into a different format”.  Last but not least, the Government will simply deny the existence of such records.

What happens next is that the applicant has 45 days to file an administrative petition with an affidavit, and pay about $500 in Court fees to challenge the decision. The applicant must demonstrate that the Government’s response is false, and he needs to overcome the presumption that all administrative actions and decisions are facially proper and valid”. Since there is no evidentiary hearings in such petitions, the Judges usually adopt verbatim the response of the State authority and dismiss the petition. The scheduling of argument date to the petition can be anywhere between 6 to 12 months, when nothing really happens other than waiting.

This is how the State of Israel and its Judiciary simply kill the people’s right to know. This explains why it is hard in Israel to critique the actions of the Government, because the Government controls the release of the documents and data that it wants to publish. The amount of frustration involved in filing a FOIA petition in an Israeli Court is so high, that most lawyers simply shy away from filing them, because of the time, the expenses and the uselessness of the responses.  In so many cases an Israeli citizen simply cannot write a letter asking a question.  The response if any that the request is unclear, vague or unspecific is a means to keep information away from the public.

Thus for example, parents who filed a FOIA petition against the welfare Office in 2012 containing 66 items requested to be released, have  managed to obtain one outdated manual from 2009 that expired, 3 personal emails between  the Chief social worker in charge of divorce and visitations Simona Shteinmetz and a feminist organization about promoting the agenda of an Australian feminist researcher Jennifer McIntosh against shared parenthood, and a few censored hand notes of Ms. Shteinmetz. As to almost half of the items the Welfare Office claimed that no records exist, and as to the other half, it claimed that it needs 5,000 hours of human labor to find the records, and it simply cannot afford the time.  The Judge accepted these excuses and dismissed the petition.  Shamir v. Ministry of Welfare, Case No. 39727-09-12, Jerusalem Dist.Ct.

In another case filed against the Ministry of Housing, a woman filed a petition to obtain all records evidencing provision of free public housing to victims of cults and the amount of state housing subsidies given  to the 30 women who lived with Goel Ratzon.  Despite information in the public domain that these women received apartments in consideration for testimony against Goel Ratzon that he enslaved them mentally, the public officials who signed the opposition to the FOIA Petition, clamed that no information exists.

Ms. Zehavit Levi Office in charge of FOIA at the ministry of Housing had no problem lying to Court under oath stating “no applications for housing assistance were receved from victims of cults, no such assistance was ever given, there are no procedures or criteria implemented or discussed at any level. and there are no correspondence or transcripts to disclose” The Judge assigned to the case issued an order to the applicant that given that there are no records, he recommends to withdrew the petition”.  Biran v. Ministry of Housing, Case No. 20280-01-16, Jerusalem District Court.

In another FOIA Petition, the State of Israel told the Court: The Freedom of Information Act does not apply in the West Bank. Information requested on archaeological excavations is refused in response to a petition filed by the organisation NGO Yesh Din. The State argued that the Freedom of Information Act does not apply in full beyond the Green Line.

It doesn’t appear to be working either side of the Green Line, and may explain why so much information is collected by campaigners themselves.

About the Author
British author and journalist. Human rights campaigner for Israeli people in UN in Geneva. Exposing injustice.
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