We Are All Eishtons

I have no idea who the blogger who goes by the pseudonym of Eishton really is. All I know is that his journalistic work is serious and professional. He raises doubts, asks questions, gathers openly available and secret information, asks for answers, and as is the custom in Internet journalism, provides the links to his sources and gets assistance from his readers in widening the scope of his work.

About two weeks ago, Eishton was summoned for questioning by military police investigators and by the Israel Police in an effort to track down who was providing him with information and documents related to the deaths of Israel Defense Force soldiers. My colleague Barak Ravid published the story, which sparked some interest in the issue, but most of the media ignored it. As far as they were concerned, Eishton was not a member of the club. Rather he was an amateur who was running a risk in going head-to-head with the defense establishment. And that was his problem.

The military investigation of Eishton began because of his interest in a simple question: Who were the 126 people who were added over the past year to the official list of those killed in the defense of the country or as victims of terrorist acts? It quickly became apparent to him that the vast majority of those on the list did not die confronting the enemy or in terrorist attacks. They were in fact police officers who had succumbed to fatal illness or others who had died some time ago and were recognized retroactively as military casualties. Eishton found embarrassing discrepancies between the numbers the Defense Ministry has released and the information on the government’s official Yizkor memorial website.

Eishton came to the conclusion that suicide was the leading cause of death in the IDF. “About every two weeks, a soldier commits suicide,” he wrote. If there had been an Israeli Pulitzer Prize, Eishton’s investigation would have deserved the award. And he causes embarrassment not just to the authorities, but also to us established journalists who report the official figures and leave it at that.

Eishton has also received information from his readers. He said a soldier identified simply as A. had given him copies of 35 “casualty notification” documents. He reported censored versions of two of the notices to show how the cover-up of the suicides in the army begins. The documents that he released are not secret and their disclosure does not threaten state security. He also made no effort to conceal his activities. In an interview with the local weekly “Zman Tel Aviv,” he recounted that he presented the information in his possession to the IDF Spokesman and the Defense Ministry. It can be assumed that he was summoned for questioning in a proper manner. It’s not clear if his identity was disclosed by his Internet service provider or whether he identified himself by name when he asked official sources for a response.

In its response to Haaretz, the army explained that Eishton was questioned following complaints from bereaved families after the details regarding their loved ones were disclosed on the Internet. One can understand the sensitivity and unpleasantness of these circumstances but that’s not a reason to launch a criminal investigation and a hunt for the person leaking information. There is a clear public interest in disclosing data on suicides in the IDF. It is relevant to every family, whether their children serve or don’t serve in the army. Journalistic privilege, which is designed to protect sources of information, is a fundamental principle of any democracy that respects freedom of expression.

Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, who in a recent ruling expanded the scope of the immunity, noted in his court opinion that the law does not define who is a journalist. Eishton, who works alone and does not draw a salary, is entitled to the same constitutional protection that I get and that any reporter or editor from an established media outlet is accorded.

Embarrassment in the IDF over disclosure of information about suicides by its soldiers and systemic negligence when it comes to perpetuating the memories of those who have died are not sufficient reason for such an infringement on the freedom to gather information of public importance and publish it.

The army and police should reprimand those who undertook and approved the police investigation of this blogger instead of punishing him and his sources. The investigation of Eishton is a severe attempt at infringement of freedom of expression and an effort to frighten someone who is trying to penetrate the public relations front erected by the defense establishment.

No one would summon Roni Daniel or Ilana Dayan of Channel 2 or Raviv Drucker of Channel 10 for questioning. Not yet anyway. It’s easy to go after an anonymous blogger who has no newspaper or television station behind him. But the problem is not just his alone. Israel’s journalists must protest the investigation of Eishton with the same vigor that they bring to the fight for their own jobs. If from now on the press conducts itself under a shadow of fear of investigations, it cannot be critical of the authorities in general or the army in particular.

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