Ethics Court Convicts Yediot Journalist for Vanunu Smear

On June 18, 2000, the Ethics Court of the Israel Press Association convicted journalist Ron Ben-Yishai and the daily Yediot Ahronot, of having neglected to obtain the response of Mordechai Vanunu and/or his lawyer, before going to press with a story that was damaging to Vanunu. While choosing not to rule on the conflicting versions of Ben-Yishai and the Prisons Service as to the facts of the case, the Court put the journalist and the newspaper on warning and ordered them to print most of the ruling in a prominent place in the newspaper.

The following is a translation from Hebrew of the Court's ruling. It was given to the parties on June 27.

-Rayna Moss


The Ethics Court of the Israeli Press Council

Attorney Yehoshua Gelbard, Chair
Mr Yosef Cassuto
Mr Dudu Dayan


Re: The complaint by Ms Rayna Moss,
on behalf of the Israeli Committee for Mordechai Vanunu
against
Yediot Aharonot & Mr Ron Ben-Yishai

Decision

1. The complaint stems from a news story published by Yediot Aharonot and written by the journalist Ron Ben-Yishai, announcing in the newspaper's main headline on 25.11.99 that Mordechai Vanunu in prison had passed Hamas prisoners information about bomb-making. A sequel along the same lines appeared on the second page of the newspaper.

2. The sub-heading of the lead story and the story itself stated that it was the Prison Service which had revealed the information.

3. The Committee for Mordechai Vanunu rejected the entire story out of hand.

4. The news-story was published about the time that the Parole Board was about to discuss Vanunu's case.

5. Mr Amos Azani, the Commissioner of the Prison Service, in a letter written on 2.2.2000, as well as in a telephone interview with Dalya Yairi, rejected the story and explicitly denied that it had originated in the Prison Service. He added that Vanunu had no knowledge about bomb making. It was also noted that the journalist Ron Ben-Yishai did not seek the response of the Prison Service before publishing the story.

6. We heard the arguments of Ms Rayna Moss and Mr Gideon Spiro, on behalf of the Committee for Mordechai Vanunu, and those of the journalist Ron Ben-Yishai.

Mr Ron Ben-Yishai repeated to us the statement made by Mr Moshe Vardi, the editor of Yediot Aharonot, that the information was given at a closed meeting of journalists with one of the heads of the Security Services, a source he could not reveal, but was convinced that it was a first-rate source.

We have no reason to doubt Ron Ben-Yishai in this matter.

7. Ron Ben-Yishai added that he reserved this news item and did not publish it until he got it confirmed by a person in the Intelligence Department of the Prison Service, whose identity he could not reveal either.

Mr Ron Ben-Yishai disputed the statement by the Prison Service Commissioner (for which he offered certain explanations), and argued that the true facts were not as the Commissioner claimed.

8. We are not a court of justice and have no way of knowing which version to believe, that of Mr Amos Azani or of Mr Ron Ben-Yishai. Consequently, we regard this aspect of the complaint against Yediot Aharonot and the journalist Ron-Ben Yishai as unproven.

9. But that is not the end of the matter.

Clause 8 of the Professional Ethics Code states:

"A newspaper or a journalist may not publish without a person's consent anything that concerns that person's privacy or reputation, or may be injurious to that person, unless there is an appropriate degree of public interest in such publication. Such publication normally requires advance clarification with the person in question and a fair publication of the person's response."

9. Neither the newspaper not the journalist fulfilled this duty.

This was a leading headline in a widely-read newspaper which attributed an extremely grave act to Mordechai Vanunu.

It is all too obvious that the statement that it was the Prison Service which revealed this grave act of Mordechai Vanunu made the news story appear all the more credible in the eyes of ordinary readers.

10. Since according to Mr Ron Ben-Yishai the story was confirmed to him personally by someone inside the Prison Service Intelligence Department, who asked to remain anonymous, it seems to us that it was the journalist's duty to seek the response of the Prison Service to the news story he wished to publish after keeping to himself for several months.

11. Furthermore, it was the duty of the newspaper and the journalist to seek the response of Mordechai Vanunu himself and to publish it. If this was a problem, there was no obstacle to seeking the response of Attorney Avigdor Feldman, Mordechai Vanunu's lawyer, who is also known to Ron Ben-Yishai.

12. By failing to do this, the newspaper and the journalist violated Clause 8 of the Code of Ethics.

13. In view of the circumstances, and in the hope that the very determination that there has been a Code violation will serve as a lesson in future, we have decided to warn the newspaper Yediot Aharonot and the journalist Ron Ben-Yishai not to repeat such violations, and to order the newspaper to publish in an appropriate manner, on its first or last page, the paragraphs 1, 2, 3, 11, 12, 13 of this decision.

Yehoshua Gelbard       Yosef Cassuto       Dudu Dayan

June 18, 2000