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The strange case of the reporter who hurt a colonel's feelings

A reporter for one of Israel’s largest news sites is being interrogated under caution – for reporting news unpleasant to a certain colonel’s ears.

Walla!News reporter Josh Breiner. (Photo: Shay Machluf)

In the early summer, Walla!News reporter Josh Breiner published an ordinary enough report: West Bank settlers upset with the local military commander, Colonel Itzik Bar, have printed out pamphlets denouncing him as Bad for Jews and an Enemy of Samaria.  Breiner approached the IDF spokesman, who condemned the pamphlets. So far, so normal.

But a month ago, Breiner was summoned  to the Judea and Samaria District police station, where he was interrogated under caution, on suspicion of “insulting a public servant” and breach of privacy. The reason, he was told by the equally bewildered but nonetheless obedient officers, was that he quoted verbatim the pamphlets against Bar, which enraged the  Deputy Attorney General enough to start the investigation.

The spokesman for the Judea and Samaria District police, Gil Elhadad, told media journal Seventh Eye that he does not believe charges  will be pressed, and that the police was merely tryinxg to get to the source of the pamphlet, “as they didn’t hear about it until Breiner reported it.” He also said that they were keen to find out  if Breiner received a printed version and not an electronic one, to trace the printing press where it was originated. Elhadad soothingly said this was being done “without impinging on Breiner’s journalistic privilege,” adding that he, of course, continued to work with Breiner.

Taken at face value, these statements would merit the question which century the police think they’re operating in.   Tracing the printing press? Someone call Sherlock Holmes. The pamphlet was probably printed on a serially produced home printer, and/or photocopied on a standard copy machine. And sad though it may be the police are incapable of obtaining copies of pamphlets handed out in their own beat circuit, this still doesn’t mean a journalist needs to disclose his source or help them trace it – which is essentially what they are asking Breiner to do.

And it’s not as if they’re asking to – they’re trying to coerce him. They didn’t seek to speak to Breiner as a witness. They hauled him in as a suspect and interrogated under caution. In other words: You report on critics of the local military regime, and the regime gets awfully sensitive that someone else except the locals might read said criticism. So you get dragged to the police and are threatened with modern equivalence of sedition and lese-majeste – without impinging on his journalistic privilege, of course.  No pressure. Would you like a coffee or a prison sentence?

Despite a sharp condemnation by the chair of the Israel Press Council, former Justice Dalia Dorner, and a letter of protest signed over 50 journalists (including yours truly), the investigation continues.

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