VANUNU SUPPORTERS TESTIFY AT ISRAELI PRESS ETHICS COMMITTEE

Today, May 30, two members of the Israeli Committee for Mordechai Vanunu - Gideon Spiro and Rayna Moss - appeared before the disciplinary panel of the Israel Press Council's Ethics Committee, pursuant to their complaint to the committee against Yediot Ahronot military affairs reporter, Ron Ben-Yishai. Vanunu's supporters had lodged the complaint in November 1999, after the paper published a front-page story by Ben-Yishai, in which nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu was accused of having supplied information on making bombs to imprisoned members of the Islamic underground, Hamas. The story, attibuted by Ben-Yishai to unnamed sources in the Prisons Service, appeared as the same paper published large parts of the transcripts from Vanunu's trial in 1986, which had been kept secret until then. The reporter, one of Israel's veteran and well-known journalists, had neglected to obtain any comment from Vanunu, his lawyer or the Prisons Service before running the story, and only mentioned at the end of the story, on an inner page in the newspaper, that Vanunu had denied the allegations. No other media repeated the allegations.

The head of the Prisons Service, Amos Azani, categorically denied the entire story, immediately after it was published. In a letter to the ethics committee Azani clarified, that while still held in solitary confinement, Vanunu had concealed notes in the prison yard where he was allowed to walk alone for two hours every day, hoping to dialogue with Palestinian political prisoners. However, Azani stressed, the notes were of an ideological nature. "Vanunu lacks the inclination and knowledge to instruct on the construction of bombs," he wrote.

In today's hearing, Spiro and Moss reiterated their position, that Ban-Yishai had ignored journalistic ethics and decency, for the sole purpose of smearing Vanunu, who was unable to respond, at a time when the trial transcripts portrayed him in a favorable light. "This type of journalism in the service of security services belongs to the darkest of regimes," stated Spiro.

Ben-Yishai spoke at length about the circumstances in which he had received the "reliable information" from unnamed sources, a description that Spiro later termed "cloak and dagger stories that have nothing to do with the case." He admitted, that the allegations had first been made by a senior official of the Shin-Bet, the Israeli secret police, at an annual briefing of military correspondents, in June 1999. However, lacking any confirmation, he decided to do nothing with the story. On November 23, the day after Yediot Ahronot first published parts of the trial transcripts, Ben-Yishai received a call from another source in the security establishment, who complained that the newspaper was portraying Vanunu "as a saint." The source repeated the original allegations, asking Ben-Yishai to publish them and correct the favorable image that arose out of the transcripts, and the reporter did his bidding.

Answering questions that were put to him by the disciplinary panel, Ben-Yishai said that he had not asked for any comment from Vanunu's lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, "because I knew what he would have said - he would have denied the facts."

He had previously requested to meet with Vanunu or give him questions in writing, but this request was turned down by Azani. How then was Vanunu quoted as denying the story?

"I asked a prison guard to ask him about it and of course he denied it. That was all I needed," Ben-Yishai replied. He added that getting a proper response would have taken "at least one week," and he was eager to publish the story to counter the positive effect of the transcripts.

Referring to a recent fiasco, in which Yediot had been duped by a singer seeking publicity, Gideon Spiro blasted the paper's lack of ethics and the reporter for taking the Shin-Bet's version at face value.

"The Shin-Bet are trained to lie, they are so accustomed to lying that it is an inherent part of their personalities. This is your reliable source? They admitted to lying to the courts for 20 years, and this is your source?"

Responding to the journalist's attempt to flaunt his "secret sources" and connections with the security establishment, Rayna Moss stated that Ben-Yishai's description of the whole affair showed a journalist who decided to throw ethics out the window in order to serve the security services who hand-fed him false information.

"When members of Israel's soccer team were suspected of sleeping with call girls on the night before a game, the media kept their names secret to protect their families. Here we have a man who's entire fate depends on this issue, who is silenced, who is imprisoned, and this reporter does not have the decency to get his response? He waited for months, but suddenly he could not wait for one week for Vanunu's comment? The only reason for that is because he was acting on behalf of the security establishment. He had to publish the story then, because of the transcripts, not because it was urgent," she said, adding that having a jailer ask Vanunu questions and relying on the jailer's report, was unethical and patently absurd.

Responding to persistent questions from the panel, why he did not even ask for the response of the Prisons Service before running the story, Ben-Yishai responded that the head of the Prisons Service, Amos Azani, had lied to him on two previous occasions.

The disciplinary panel is expected to issue its decision within days.

-Rayna Moss