Israel und Palästina
Muzzling the watchdog

Israeli public diplomacy often uses the term „the only democracy in the Middle East“. But without comparing, Israel is also unique by being one of the few democracies, if not the only one, in the world that subjects its media to military censorship.

by Ido Liven

Israeli public diplomacy often uses the term „the only democracy in the Middle East“. But without comparing, Israel is also unique by being one of the few democracies, if not the only one, in the world that subjects its media to military censorship.

In a country that sees itself as constantly facing an existential threat, any information that can be interpreted as a challenge to national security becomes highly contentious. A military censor, appointed directly by the defense minister, is therefore tasked with ensuring that Israeli media do not disseminate information that has the potential of compromising national security.

To be sure, the Israeli media sphere is a vibrant and essential player in society. It has been playing a crucial role in the public discourse, in turn contributing to shaping the country’s contemporary democratic character. Investigative reports have been instrumental in exposing political corruption, military wrongdoing, human rights violations and more. Israeli journalists are openly critical toward the political establishment, possibly even more than in many other countries, and it is perhaps in this light that repeated attempts by some lawmakers to tame democracy’s watchdog, ostensibly in a bid to enforce responsibility, should be understood.

But there are a number of factors influencing the kind of climate within which Israeli journalists operate. To begin with, 65 years since the establishment of the state, neither the freedom of expression nor the freedom of the press are enshrined in law. Instead, their legal standing relies on court rulings. The very existence of a state censor stems from Israel’s Defence (Emergency) Regulations, a legal framework dating back to pre-state days and still in force today. And indeed bills, intended to curtail so-called excessive media influence, are still occasionally tabled – some also approved – at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

Moreover, several developments through the years have rattled the notion of press freedom in Israel. Perhaps the most notable case lately is the one that came to be called the Prisoner X case.

Aired in early February, a documentary by Australia’s ABC TV exposed the story of Ben Zygier, a Jewish Australian Mossad agent who committed suicide three years earlier while held incommunicado in a high-security prison cell. Reports that followed in all of Israel’s major news sites were quickly removed, and a court order ensured that for about 24 hours the story was completely gagged. In addition, the Editors Committee – a forum of the country’s chief editors established in the 1940s to allow senior government officials to brief them about issues that are ostensibly better left unreported – was summoned to meet Tamir Pardo, head of the Mossad.

At the same time, however, Facebook, Twitter and blogs were teeming with bits and pieces of information, speculations and of course opinions on the details of the case and, inevitably, on its suppression. International media were also reporting extensively on the documentary, as well as the Israeli authorities‘ heavy-handed response to its release.

The media blackout was later gradually lifted, and further investigative reporting by both Israeli and international media – including ABC Australia and Der Spiegel – followed up on the story.

A public debate about censorship, national security and press freedom also ensued. „Self-censorship is something that cannot be acceptable nowadays. I thought the Editors Committee no longer exists. I was surprised, negatively,“ Press Council President Dalia Dorner said on public service radio.

In particular, the effectiveness of restrictions on Israeli media came under question in the face of a globalized media environment, especially in the age of the internet. „This is passe and pathetic,“ former head of the Mossad Danny Yatom later told daily newspaper Maariv, „and the fact is that they understood it themselves and one day after the affair was published around the world it was published here as well.“

When confronted with the question in 2010, chief censor Sima Vaknin-Gil told Spiegel Online, „in most cases the enemy attributes more credibility to an article that is published by a well-known Israeli reporter [than in the international media]. … Even if secret information is published by the foreign media, we can force the Israeli media to write ‚as reported in the foreign media.'“

And indeed, if there is one thing that illustrates the awkward relationship between the state censorship and the media, it is the aphorism „according to foreign sources.“ Under this rhetorical fig leaf, Israeli media publish information they consider as being in the public interest but are restricted from directly attributing it to Israeli sources.

It’s not that these publications are not credible – otherwise Israeli media would not cite them – it’s just that their reports, as Vaknin-Gil contends, are not considered as official as Israeli sources.

And perhaps the most longstanding example is the issue of an Israeli nuclear capacity, towards which official Israel has for years maintained a policy of deliberate ambiguity. „The nuclear taboo has been coated with layers of reinforced concrete through the years, as if the very existence of a public debate with questions and pondering could in some way undermine national security. This is, of course, a perception that most fundamentally conflicts with the essence of journalism,“ environment publicist Aviv Lavie wrote in July. „Journalists should be assuming that any public debate, any doubt casted, any exchange of opinions and critical thinking (as long as it is ensured that no operational secrets are disclosed) – will always contribute to society’s robustness and security.“

And he international media has been playing a key role in this context. Israeli journalists who do recognize the military censor as an obstacle to publishing information of profound public interest (also on the international level) would leak it to a media outlet abroad, and then run a ‚follow-up‘ story „according to foreign sources.“ The Prisoner X story was in fact one such example.

Surely, it is encouraging that Israeli media have managed to work around the censors (or with them). But overall, journalists rarely try to defy or resist the military censor. It probably needs to be a truly big story, with full editorial backing, and that could also carry a potential commercial value.
But these are really the exceptions that prove the existence of the rule. In fact, censorship breeds self-censorship, at times to the point of what might be a journalistic Stockholm syndrome.

„As a journalist for nearly 30 years in the media and defense arenas in Israel, I look back, and not in anger,“ wrote Ben Caspit in a piece titled „The Case for Israeli Censorship“ in Al-Monitor in February. „I’ve had numerous run-ins with the censors but in retrospect I cannot point at cases where my reports or stories were draconically suppressed.“

But perhaps part of this willful acceptance of the censorship has to do with the working relationship that has evolved between journalists and censors, mostly a result of court rulings and mutual agreements.

„The 35 military censors are not faceless, inaccessible bureaucrats who work behind walls,“ Aluf Benn, the editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Haaretz wrote in a February op-ed in the Guardian. „You know them personally and you can negotiate the wording to let the story pass.“

Moreover, today, journalists would submit materials for pre-screening only if they fall under an agreed list of what has been agreed in a 1996 accord as sensitive topics. At the same time, in line with court rulings, the censor’s working principle is only bowdlerizing information whose publication clearly poses „imminent and immediate danger“ to national security.

Furthermore, censors‘ decisions can, in theory, be appealed to a higher, ad-hoc instance as well as to the Supreme Court of Justice. Similarly, to resist gag orders, which are often more restrictive than censor interventions, media organizations can appeal to the Supreme Court of Justice.

Therefore, it is perhaps no surprise that many, including Press Council President Dorner, believe that having materials vetted by censors prior to their publication effectively relieves the journalist from legal responsibility. (In the case of Haaretz reporter Uri Blau, however, a censor’s prepublication approval did not prevent the persecution of both Anat Kamm, the whistleblower who leaked classified military documents, and Blau himself.)

In a 2011 book chapter, Israeli media scholars examining the role of the military censorship in the interplay between the government, the army, the media and the public, concluded that, paradoxically, the military censor has become imperative in protecting the freedom of the press in Israel.

Data from the military censor unit published by Israeli media webmagazine The Seventh Eye in March 2012 sheds a light on what this normalization of censorship practically looks like. The information showed that between 2002 and 2011, censors intervened in 17 to 20 percent of the texts media outlets have submitted annually (with the exception of 2004 where the rate stood at 25 percent). During the second Israel-Lebanon war, in July-August 2006, the intervention rate reached 30 and 24 percent, respectively.

For the censors, this demonstrates their supposedly liberal approach as well as Israeli journalists‘ so-called responsibility. „The media in Israel doesn’t like to be perceived as breaching censorship,“ chief censor Vaknin-Gil explained to Spiegel Online. Yet, it is more likely that the vast majority of news materials were submitted for censor review, not necessarily because they contained truly sensitive information, but simply because journalists preferred to shift responsibility to the authorities.

The censor statement to the Seventh Eye went on to say that of the news materials published without pre-screening, censor intervention would have been required only in two percent on average. It could be that journalists assume that self-censorship, supposedly retaining their independence, is better than institutional one. In practice, that would mean that journalists would not even consider addressing issues that could potentially challenge censorship, even if such issues could be in the public interest.

„Many journalists accept censorship willingly as their national contribution, don’t argue with it, and criticize their peers who break with the official line. They are even proud of knowing the story and withholding it from their audience,“ wrote Haaretz’s Aluf Benn in the Guardian.

„As long as permanent peace has not erupted in the Middle East, we shall probably have to keep living with censorship, which is a necessary evil, completely understood by Israeli citizens seeking peace and security,“ Caspit contended.

So, in essence, those journalists who endorse muzzling of the media basically suggest they have more trust in the defense establishment than in the media. In fact, this kind of mindset is not only an evidence of the selective nature of some journalists‘ critical approach. It also implies that the military censors could be more committed to the public interest than do journalists.

And so, the Prisoner X case was not the watershed moment it should have been. It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of the debate around the role of the censorship that the Prisoner X case had stirred, but it was short-lived. „The weak and burdened with guilt feelings Israeli press – the one seen by broad circles in the public as unpatriotic exactly because it fulfills its roles – does not deserve to boast the achievement of [the eventual] publication,“ wrote Hanoch Marmari, chief editor of media journal The Seventh Eye. „The press has submissively accepted the iron wall that had been installed around this awkward case.“

And it didn’t take long for the next test to appear. In early July, reports started emerging of another case, instantly dubbed „Prisoner X 2“. Both Haaretz and Yediot Achronot reported about another mystery inmate of a background similar to Zygier’s who was, perhaps still is, kept in very similar conditions. „Without getting into the details, they are far more sensational, far more astounding and far more fascinating,“ prominent attorney Avigdor Feldman, familiar with both cases, told radio FM103 when asked about the offences attributed to Prisoner X 2. „Protecting the secret, despite one might think – or naively think that is intended to protect national security – is meant to protect the reputation of that body, to protect and cover horrible faux pas that take place without public oversight … whoever opens up this case will do good service to the country, not bad service.“

Yet, judging by the way the new case was covered, it appears that if any changes had happened since the previous one, they were mostly on the part of the state – obviously, the side that saw most criticism. A measured disclosure, either through direct gag order or self-censorship, effectively ensured the story quickly dissipates – though, not before some journalists criticized their colleagues, or even the military censor, for allowing even this limited disclosure.

Calls to scrap military censorship have been rarer. Reforming it, as The Seventh Eye’s Marmari had argued, would only perpetuate and legitimize muzzling of the media. And in fact, at this point, abolishing the institutional censorship is unlikely to improve press freedom, since self-censorship among journalists and media outlets who wouldn’t want to take risks might become even rifer.

Nevertheless, self-regulation, and adherence to professional values, would be much better than legal regulation and official censorship. Ultimately, self-regulation, when dealing with issues that could potentially challenge national security, has to be weighed against the public interest.
Therefore, as long as censorship does exist, the minimum journalists acknowledging the supreme importance of the public interest should do is recognize the importance of transparency, not only from the subjects of coverage but also of their own work. There is no real reason why gag orders, as well as censor interventions, should not be made public.

Yedioth Ahronoth‘s coverage of the arrest of Anat Kamm, when the newspaper ran a story with whole passages blacked out, proved this is possible.
The common assumption that the public interest and national security are always one and the same simply doesn’t hold water. Israel has already seen several cases along the years – not only the Prisoner X story, and possibly also Prisoner X 2 – where censorship or persecution have been invoked essentially as a kneejerk reaction, in a bid to save the state’s face, not state security.

Ido Liven is an Israeli journalist, covering mainly the environment and international affairs. His stories have appeared in a range of international publications including IPS, Haaretz, Swissinfo, ChinaDialogue and others.

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