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Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
October 23

HEADLINE: Comment: The media's moral dilemma


A senior security official sighed and brushed his hands through his thinning hair, pondering the proposed prisoner swap and the lifting of the gag order on the circumstances surrounding Elhanan Tannenbaum's abduction. "It's a dilemma," he said.

A dilemma indeed.

The question mulled by the country's media for more than three years is this: Does the public's right to know the details of an abduction - details that might spur a public outcry against a controversial prisoner swap - outweigh the potential damage it might cause the prisoner? All of the media have considered this question.

On one hand, the story of Tannenbaum's abduction at the hands of an Israeli Arab agent of Hizbullah seems too "sexy" to keep shelved. On the other, the responsibility to a citizen of the state, a man cruelly tortured, calls on us to protect him - even if, as some charge, he "made his own bed and now has to sleep in it."

In its petition to Tel Aviv District Court in early October, Haaretz spearheaded a campaign to lift the three-year-old gag order. Haaretz lawyer Pas Moser has argued that Tannenbaum's story - details of which many reporters have known for some time - must be brought to the public. This is especially salient, Moser argued, because the country is on the verge of releasing hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners, some of them considered very senior, in exchange for Tannenbaum and the bodies of St.-Sgts. Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham, and Omar Sawayid.

The release of terrorists, or even their accomplices who played no direct part in terrorism, could risk lives or increase Hizbullah's appetite for hostages, the argument goes.

Under the gag order, the media (this newspaper included) have leaked information - a trickle at first and then, as the prisoner swap seemed near, a flood of reports about Tannenbaum's abduction. Most reporters tiptoed just inside the gag order, careful not to violate it. Others crossed the line, openly calling Tannenbaum a "criminal" in large, blaring headlines, before the truth of his business deals was officially revealed. These articles were not shown to the IDF censor before publication.

Yet hundreds of other articles were censored in the past three years, censor Brig.-Gen. Rahel Dolev told Channel 1 on Wednesday night.

Part of what was published was "disinformation," the senior security source said disdainfully. He criticized both the media frenzy and the public squabbling between the families whose sons are to be included in the impending deal and those whose sons are not.

The Jerusalem Post's report last week laid bare many of the details surrounding the affair. What it printed was true, and the result of a great deal of research. But then, as now, it was decided to withhold information that might expose Tannenbaum or land him back in Hizbullah's torture chamber.

German mediators - the only people allowed to see Tannenbaum - first pronounced him in "fair" condition. It was then leaked that he had been tortured, and that his diabetes has gone untreated despite the International Commission of the Red Cross's efforts to send medical packages and equipment.

The point is, no one here knows what Tannenbaum told his interrogators, but few can withstand three years of torture. It is safe to say, however, that Hizbullah, which hatched the kidnap plan, knows better than anyone how it bundled him off to Lebanon and what lies were used to entice him. Little did Tannenbaum know that he was the "lucrative product" in question.

Speaking at a press conference called just after the Supreme Court's ruling, Tannenbaum's daughter Keren put it best: "Every item that is released puts the life of my father in danger. Every item that is released could send him to back to the interrogation room and to the torture chambers."

Worse yet, said a source who works closely with the families of MIAs, something that might seem entirely innocuous here could be seen as a major breakthrough for the interrogation in Lebanon.

Yet this is a country with a voracious appetite for news. The number of prime time hours dominated by newscasts is perhaps unparalleled.

This is partially an expression of our stubborn democracy.

But Keren Tannenbaum, who gave birth to her 57-year-old father's first grandchild last month, was actually relieved that the information flashing on television screens across the country on Wednesday was far less pernicious than the family expected. In some ways it was a relief from the weeks of nasty rumors - some of them false - that shuttled back and forth across the Internet and in newspapers.

In the end there is no easy answer. And as messy as it was, this was a process through which we had to pass, a process which could not be bottled up any longer.

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