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A letter to our readers: On censorship

From military censorship to the government deciding who is and isn’t a journalist, Israeli authorities use various tools to interfere with the press. An important disclosure to our readers.

Illustrative photo by Shutterstock.com

Illustrative photo by Shutterstock.com

When +972 Magazine was formed by a group of journalists and bloggers over five years ago, its founders decided that the site would not have an editorial line or political agenda save for three common denominators to which everyone was willing to commit: human rights, opposing the occupation, and freedom of information.

The first two values are likely evident to almost anyone who stumbles across +972 Magazine, and certainly to regular readers. The third value manifests itself primarily behind the scenes, although in its essence is journalism itself.

Late last month, a Facebook account belonging to Chief IDF Censor Col. Ariella Ben Avraham sent a message to +972 Magazine and dozens of new media news sites, blogs and Facebook accounts detailing “the obligation to submit to the censor [for prior review] items relating to security.”

Col. Ben Avraham, who only recently assumed the role of chief military censor, appears to be expanding her office’s priorities and taking an aggressive new line against new and social media outlets.

Prior to this article, in more than five years of publication +972 had never submitted anything to the IDF Censor, although we have published materials from other sites that were reviewed by the Censor.

After consulting with counsel, we believe that at this point in time we will have no choice but to submit certain articles to the military censor before publication in the future. And although we are forbidden from publishing the full list of topics that are subject to censorship, they include everything from equipment the army is using in the West Bank, troop movements, the location of rocket strikes, the identities of high-ranking security officials, and certain information about national infrastructure.

If and when the IDF Censor does demand changes to one of our articles we will be forbidden from telling you, our readers, when and where we were censored. And while we begrudgingly accept our legal obligation to submit certain articles for prior review, we plan to fight with our full resources any attempts at actually censoring us.

A permanent state of emergency

The Israeli military censor draws its authority from emergency regulations that have been in place for over 70 years, which originated in the British Mandate period.

While other countries have formal mechanisms for requesting that journalists refrain from publishing certain information relating to national security, Israel is all but alone among Western democratic states that have a legally binding state censor. Nowhere else must reported materials be submitted for prior review.

Yet censorship is simply the way things have always been done in Israel – a state of affairs that remained effective and possible as long as there was a limited number of newspapers and broadcasters that needed to be censored.

As the dawn of the Internet age lowered the entry barriers into journalism and the mass distribution of information, however, the practice of state censorship has often devolved into the realm of the absurd. Information censored in traditional media outlets is simultaneously accessible on private blogs, on social media, and in overseas news outlets available to anyone with an Internet connection.

One of the most ludicrous cases in recent years was the secret arrest of whistleblower Anat Kamm, which was an open secret for months until journalists, bloggers and regular citizens lost their patience. The ridiculous ease of bypassing the censor (or in this case a gag order — more on that later) eventually became apparent to anyone walking around Tel Aviv, who would have found graffiti on major boulevards reading: “Google ‘Anat Kamm’.” (Details of the affair had already been reported by American blogger Richard Silverstein.)

Graffiti on Rothschild Blvd in Tel Aviv reading, in Hebrew, 'Google Anat Kamm' (photo: Ido Kenan / the7eye.org.il)

Graffiti on Rothschild Blvd in Tel Aviv reading, in Hebrew, ‘Google Anat Kamm’ (photo: Ido Kenan / the7eye.org.il)

The previous IDF Censor, who finished her 10-year term at the end of 2015, made no secret of her desire to see the entire apparatus become obsolete in favor of a more voluntary — and civilian — system, which would bring Israel in line with other democratic countries. The new censor’s vision, it appears, is diametrically opposed.

Contacted by +972, the IDF Censor claimed there has been no change in policy and that individual bloggers have submitted content for review in the past. Asked about its criteria for preemptively contacting bloggers and social media accounts to demand compliance, the Censor refused to elaborate. One blogger who was not contacted by the Censor recently decided to try and submit an article anyway. He was told to “not worry about it,” raising questions about who was indeed sent a censorship compliance letter.

Secrets secrets are no fun

Censorship’s most severe threat to democracy is that it limits the press’s ability to act as a watchdog over the government and those who otherwise hold power over our lives. State security agencies, the government and individual politicians often bear interests that can be at odds with the public’s own interest, and an independent press acts as a check on state power.

And yet, states can have legitimate secrets. For that exact reason, codes of journalistic ethics and responsibility dictate that reporters and editors must always weigh the public’s interest to know against the potential harm publication might cause. The problem with prior restraint and state censorship is that it allows the state, and the state alone, to decide what is in the public interest. When that decision-making process is unilateral, the conditions become ripe for the abuse of power, corruption, oppression, and cover-ups of all the above.

Such fears are not unfounded, certainly not in Israel. The most egregious case in which the IDF Censor was complicit in a government cover-up — that we know of — was the Bus 300 Affair, in which security officials used the censor to cover up extrajudicial killings. The Anat Kamm affair, by the way, also centered on exposing extrajudicial killings.

The foreign press

A crowd of journalists stands in front of the Separation Wall during a protest for Land Day, held in front of the Qalandiya checkpoint, West Bank, March 30, 2013. Land Day commemorates the death of six Palestinian protesters at the hands of Israeli forces during mass demonstrations in 1976 against plans to confiscate Palestinian land in northern Israel. (Photo by: Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

A crowd of journalists stands at the Qalandiya checkpoint, West Bank, March 30, 2013. (Photo by: Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

The irony of the censorship regime in Israel is that a lot of censored information gets out sooner or later (see: Prisoner X, Anat Kamm, Bus 300, the Lavon Affair, Israel’s “reported by the foreign press” nuclear weapons program, and on and on).

The vast majority of the Israeli press complies with the IDF Censor but a significant portion of the foreign press does not.

While a number of major international news outlets and wire services do submit security related articles for approval by the IDF Censor, others take what the New York Times has called the “don’t ask/hope they don’t tell approach” of ignoring the legal obligation, although even that isn’t clear cut.

Asked whether it has increased enforcement of the censorship law vis-à-vis the foreign press operating in Israel, a representative of the IDF Censor claimed the foreign press already complies. Asked about those that don’t, she responded that the IDF Censor “can” file complaints with the police, but declined to say whether such a step has been taken in recent years. “We operate in a democratic country and we know the limits of our manpower,” she added.

And while Israel (to the best of our knowledge) has not prosecuted any journalists for violating the censorship law in recent years, the government has other ways of leveraging compliance.

“You can’t work in this country without a Government Press Office card,” Foreign Press Association chairman Luke Baker told +972, “and you can’t get a Government Press Office card without signing an agreement committing to respect the censorship law.”

The government decides who is a journalist

In a number of ways the state is able to influence what information is reported, how it is reported, and who can report it through the Government Press Office (GPO). (Side note: You need a license from the Interior Ministry in order to publish a newspaper in Israel. In the past decade, 62 such applications were rejected.)

Carrying a GPO card gives journalists access to official events, the scenes of newsworthy incidents, is often a condition for cooperation from official spokespeople, and offers protection from arrest while covering protests. In other words, government accreditation makes reporting much safer and more effective. (Foreign journalists must have the GPO’s endorsement in order to even receive a visa to work in Israel.)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to reporters at a Government Press Office event, December 17, 2014. The GPO accredits journalists but is also considered a ‘hasbara,’ or propaganda branch of the government.(Roman Yanushevsky / Shutterstock.com)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to reporters at a Government Press Office event, December 17, 2014. The GPO accredits journalists but is also considered a ‘hasbara,’ or propaganda branch of the government.(Roman Yanushevsky / Shutterstock.com)

But by giving itself the power to decide who is a legitimate journalist, the GPO (which operates as part of the Prime Minister’s Office) also inherently gets to decide who is not a legitimate journalist. And as with any decision made by government bureaucrats subordinate to politicians, such decisions can at times be driven by political considerations.

That has been true in the past and under the current government. It is relatively common for journalists to have to hire lawyers in order to secure and renew their accreditations. Earlier this month Government Press Office director Nitzan Chen said he will considering revoking the press credentials of journalists who pen articles carrying headlines not to his liking.

(+972 Magazine is currently engaged in a years-long battle to be accredited by the GPO as a recognized, and therefore legitimate, news organization.)

But the GPO is not only an office charged with accrediting and liaising with journalists. It is also a political propaganda organ of the Israeli government. According to a December 2014 Knesset report on official hasbara (propaganda) efforts, “The GPO tries to promote the State of Israel’s hasbara in its work with the foreign press,” an effort on which it spent NIS 36.5 million between 2010 and 2014.

One can only imagine the risks of political intervention and conflict of interest when a government body charged with disseminating propaganda is also responsible for accrediting journalists who might happen to be critical of state policy.

Gag orders

Yet another way Israel obstructs freedom of information and an informed body politic is through gag orders.

The IDF Censor might be looking to expand its reach and authority into social and new media, but it has actually become more timid over the years. For the most part the IDF Censor has raised its threshold of what it is willing to censor, largely limiting its intervention to information it believes could pose an “imminent and immediate danger” to state security.

In response, Israeli security agencies — from the civilian police to the Shin Bet to the army to the Mossad — have increasingly asked the courts to step up and act as the guardian of their secrets.

Today, in 2016, journalists and editors receive at least one gag order a week via email, fax and these days, even by WhatsApp. Unlike the military censor, which will generally only censor the most sensitive details or ask to change the specific wording of a report, court gag orders can be sweeping — barring publication of any detail of an affair, and often cover the existence of the gag order itself.

And unlike in dealings with the IDF Censor, there is generally no press representative (representing the public’s interest to know) to argue against the issuance of gag orders.


Free speech silenced (Yossi Gurvitz)

Illustrative photo by Yossi Gurvitz.

But the most problematic way that the state controls information reaching the public is actually the one method through which it exercises the least amount of control: self-censorship.

In a media environment that has never existed without various forms of accepted state intervention and censorship, the press eventually starts censoring itself. And that is the most dangerous place we can reach. We at +972 pledge to be vigilant in not letting self-censorship affect our reporting and writing.

The Palestinian press

And yet, everything mentioned here so far is nothing compared to the magnitude and scope of Israeli restrictions and violations against the Palestinian press — both inside Israel and the occupied territories.

Late last year, authorities shut down a number of Arabic-language newspapers and publications in Israel associated with the Islamic Movement. Other publications are subject to close scrutiny by intelligence and security forces.

In the Occupied Territories, the Israeli military regularly shuts down Palestinian media outlets, and destroys and confiscates journalistic and broadcast equipment. Journalists report being targeted with violence by the military.

Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian journalist (photo: Activestills.org)

Israeli troops arrest a Palestinian journalist (photo: Activestills.org)

Israeli bloggers might have to submit Facebook statuses for censorship but Palestinian journalists are being arrested for posting on social media. Palestinian reporter Muhammad al-Qiq is currently near death due to a lengthy hunger strike against his administrative detention — a practice Israel uses to imprison Palestinians without charge or trial.

Israel also severely restricts the movement of Palestinian journalists. Whereas a GPO card allows Israeli journalists to move through military checkpoints freely, even entering areas of the West Bank where most Jewish Israelis are forbidden from stepping foot, the GPO long ago stopped issuing press cards to Palestinian journalists.

Palestinian journalists do not have the same freedom of movement that their Israeli counterparts have, and reporters of Arab descent have regularly reported being humiliated with discriminatory strip searches and delays at official events to which they have been invited.

Israel ranked 101st in Reporters Without Borders’ Press World Freedom Index last year, largely due to its repression of press freedom among Palestinians.

And that is without even mentioning the far-worse treatment Palestinian journalists face at the hands of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

This article was also published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

Before you go...

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+972 Magazine is owned by our bloggers and journalists, who are driven by passion and dedication to the causes we cover. But we still need to pay for editing, photography, translation, web design and servers, legal services, and more.

As an independent journalism outlet we aren’t beholden to any outside interests. In order to safeguard that independence voice, we are proud to count you, our readers, as our most important supporters. If each of our readers becomes a supporter of our work, +972 Magazine will remain a strong, independent, and sustainable force helping drive the discourse on Israel/Palestine in the right direction.

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    1. carmen

      Never give up –

      Reply to Comment
    2. Permanent censorship of the media is, of course, one reason why Israel cannot be considered a democracy.

      It is however disappointing that +972 did not consider refusing to submit articles in advance to the censor. Compliance with the law enables it to continue.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Mg

      Good article. Fight state licensing and band together to ignore new state military censor. Power in numbers. Delve deeper into the self-censorship and authoritarian censorship in West Bank/Gaza. Human rights abuses committed by PA against journos and opposition groups not reported on by most press. Keep in mind despite these challenges, Israeli public dialogue is still more robust and free from PC self-censorship than in the US!

      Reply to Comment
    4. Ginger Eis

      +972mag: Trading In Falsehood and Promoting anti-Semitism

      Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press are Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. However, they are NOT absolute. One of the ways of restricting Freedom of the Press is by means of Gag Orders. Gag Orders place conditions, restrictions or penalties on Free Speech and Press Freedom in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, the prevention of crime and disorder, the protection of the integrity of ongoing (criminal) investigations, the protection of the privacy of innocent bystanders and/or criminal suspects, the protection of minors, the protection of the right to fair trial before the Court of law, protection of State’s secrets in the interest of National Security, protection of the identity of National Security Agents, etc. The importance of Gag Orders in a democratic society such as Israel and other Western countries, cannot be overestimated. To summarize: “No one has the right to walk into a crowded theater and shout, “Fire!” thus causing people to panic and trample over each other”.

      The Government of Israel does NOT issue Gag Orders, the Courts do! Before issuing a Gag Order, the parties to the case are heard and are able to concur with or oppose the Gag Order. The Press can and do challenge Gag Orders in Israelis Courts – sometimes with success! To advocate the eradication of Gag Orders as is being done in this article is simply very irresponsible and anarchistic.

      Abusing Freedom of the Press to incite violence, wanton destruction of other people’s property, murders and mass murders of innocent civilians, etc. is NOT protected anywhere in the world. SOME Palestinian Arab media are used to incite using kitchen-knives, machetes and meat-cleavers to butcher innocent Jews in the streets of Israel or running the over with cars and busses crushing them to death! SOME Palestinian Arabs masquerading as “journalists” have abused the very generous freedom Israel grants to journalists to spy for (human, military and civilian) targets for terrorist attacks and/or for foreign countries and/or entities, propagate and incite (racial) violence and murder of innocent Israelis and Members of the Israel Armed Forces. The restrictions imposed on them are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, etc. Said restrictions therefore serve legitimate goals!

      There is no case for Israel to answer here. Israel’s Censorship laws are more restricted than that of European countries that are at peace with their neighbors.

      +972mag and its radical leftist columnists, including “one-staters” those who openly oppose the EXISTENCE of the State of Israel and/or claim that (parts of) Israel proper is “occupied territories” (Sawsan Khalifa et al.) are NOT about Human Rights, Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press. They are anti-Israel. They are spreading anti-Semitism either out of ignorance or flat-out malice!

      End Of Story!

      Reply to Comment
      • SkyHawk

        I grew up in the early 90s watching old James Bond movies and couldn’t get enough of it, because of the spy intrigues involving beautiful slick babes. Babes are the most beautiful thing the Good Lord ever made! Anyways, James Bond is just movie, not reality. In real life, however, far worse happens – ranging from very rudimental- to very sophisticated forms of spying and identifying “targets” for “neutralization”. Israel is a Master when it comes to spying on enemies. But Israel is also not immune to being spied on. It is no secret that some Palestinians have been recruited in the past as spies against Israeli military and civilian targets by e.g. Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, etc. They (some that is) are also known for posing as journalists to gain access to sensitive sites, senior Officers of the IDF, etc. Not sure Mike has any idea of the nature of danger Israel and Israeli citizens face as a result of elements within Israel right now who are spying against Israel for foreign masters. If he did, perhaps he would have framed his article differently.


        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          This is satire, right? I mean, your putting us on, right?

          Reply to Comment
        • Whonoze

          Remember Ahmad Shah Massoud? Dude was an Afghan political and military leader, a very powerful military commander during the resistance against the Soviets, but was blown to bits on September 9, 2001 by journalists he invited to talk peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region. His life would have been saved if those journalists were strip-searched.

          This year alone, five Palestinians have been charged with spying for Hezbollah/Iran against Israel. The article you linked tells the story of how IDF-soldiers allowed a (Palestinian) journalist to mingle FREELY among them, because he was a journalist. BUT then, that (fake) journalist pulled out his slaughter-knife and proceeded to murder one of the soldiers before being shot.


          Great journalists! No kidding.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Geez it wasn’t satire. OMG. That’s funny! This has anything to do with +972 having to submit to a censor? How desperately absurd you are.

            Reply to Comment
          • Whonoze

            Getting hysterical and unhinged, moron? It seems you in your hysteria did not get to read the part of the article headlined “Palestinian Press” and how poorly it is claimed that Israel treats them. ROFLMAO …

            Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Thanks so much for this pontifical exhortation on the splendid benefits to humankind of gag orders, Eis. I almost gagged but then I realized who was writing it and my laugh reflex overrode matters. I especially laughed, I must tell you, at “The importance of Gag Orders in a democratic society such as Israel and other Western countries, cannot be overestimated.” When may we expect a similar treatise from you on the underestimation of the dangers of government censorship masquerading as a concern for “national security…etc.”? I defy you to cite one +972 article in the past five years (i.e., ever) that genuinely compromised “national security…etc.”? Or was even remotely the equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theater? If I were you I’d put up or shut up on this. That’s no gag order, just my friendly advice.

        Reply to Comment
        • carmen

          IMO but it has to be obvious by now that the pseudo-jurist Eis, et al, are doing nothing here but honing their comedic craft. It’s actually pretty funny. Nothing but satire. Who knows, maybe they’ll get hired by Eretz Nehederet? Maybe they helped with this one. Israeli parody of Taglit-Birthright Propaganda Trips on Vimeo


          Reply to Comment
    5. Ben

      “Earlier this month Government Press Office director Nitzan Chen said will considering revoking the press credentials of journalists who pen articles carrying headlines not to his liking.”

      Pure Soviet/East German police state style censorship.

      Reply to Comment
      • Whonoze

        Foolish, baseless propaganda.

        Reply to Comment
        • Whonoze

          Here is the story containing the full sets of FACTS and context that Michael Omer-Man avoids at all cost to keep hateful and gullible minds like you well fed with anti-Israel propaganda :

          “The Foreign Ministry moved swiftly on Wednesday to change what it termed a “horrible headline” the American CBS news outlet put on its story about the terrorist attack at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate.

          At about 4 p.m. the network’s website put the following headline on a story about the attack: “3 Palestinians killed as daily violence grinds on.” About 90 minutes later it was changed to this: “Israeli police kill 3 alleged Palestinian attackers.”

          Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nachshon said the original headline was “biased and dishonest,” and an example of “unparalleled chutzpah.” (…). The new headline, he said, “was not ideal, but better.”

          The headline was later changed a third time, reading: “Palestinians kill Israeli officer, wound another before being killed.”

          This is not the first time that the Foreign Ministry has protested headlines in the foreign media following terror attacks. In November 2014, CNN apologized for mistakes in its coverage of a terror attack on a synagogue in Jerusalem.

          CNN ran a ticker that read, “4 Israelis, 2 Palestinians dead in Jerusalem,” failing to note that the two Palestinians were the terrorists. Later, CNN apologized for the headline, writing: “As CNN updated its reporting on the terrorist attack on the synagogue in Jerusalem earlier today, our coverage did not immediately reflect the fact that the two Palestinians killed were the attackers. We erred and regret the mistake.” http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Politics-And-Diplomacy/Israel-threatens-to-revoke-press-credentials-from-negligent-journalists-443975

          Reply to Comment
    6. Ben

      More East German/Soviet style:

      Police in Jerusalem briefly detain Washington Post Jerusalem bureau chief


      “…According to another reporter at the scene, the two were detained for an hour on grounds of incitement and taken to a police station for questioning. . . . Jerusalem Police issued a statement saying: “A passerby had complained that he was witness to the intention on the part of a number of people to stage a provocative situation and a disturbance of the peace by young Arabs directed at police on security duty on the ground.” The incident was apparently to be staged for “propaganda purposes,” the police added.”

      Reply to Comment
      • Whonoze

        More silly attempts at propaganda. Here is the part you left out:

        “Washington Post reporter detained, suspected of incitement

        William Booth, the Jerusalem bureau chief for the Washington Post, was detained on Tuesday by Israeli police near Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem. An employee of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) was also reportedly questioned by police for approximately one hour before being released. The two were allegedly suspected of incitement. Israeli police reported that Booth had been taken into custody over suspicions the journalist had been paying local Arabs to riot. The two were reportedly speaking with local Arabs just outside of the Old City before being detained by police. http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/208119#.VsMiP7ThDs0

        You are too fond of using terms such as “Eat Germany”, “fascist”, “Hitler”, “brown shirts”, etc. when talking about Israel and Israeli posters. That is an expression of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is a psychiatric illness. Say goodbye to anti-Semitism. Let go of hate!

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          I’d much rather eat France or Italy.

          Reply to Comment
          • Whonoze

            You better do that, because you constant infusion of “Hitler”, “brown shirts”, “East Germany”, “the Soviets”, etc. in relation to Israel is clear expression of bigotry and anti-Semitism.

            Say goodbye to bigotry and anti-Semitism. Let go of the hate in your heart against Jews, or it will destroy you!

            Reply to Comment
          • Carmen

            “Let go of the hate…”. Spoken by someone who has no idea what he/she/it just wrote. What a waste of time that was. There is no hate on these pages but there is a lot of criticism for the zionist enterprise. Jews aren’t zionists. Some are. Some christians are zionists. Zionism is and has been the problem since the end of the 19th century. You want this to be about antisemitism, but it isn’t. That’d make it easy for you if it was, but it obviously isn’t. If this was simply antisemitism, it would have been sorted out years ago. But it isn’t. It’s about zionism and the theft of Palestine. There’s no hate to let go of, that’s just the latest riff from hasbara.com on how to deal with antizionists.

            Reply to Comment
          • Whonoze

            The Washington post journalist was **detained** on **suspicion** of having committed a crime, moron, he was NOT **accused** and was certainly NOT ***arrested** or even **charged”. Not intelligent enough to understand those simple things and know the difference, moron? “we heard from someone um somewhere that you was payin’ Arabs to riot” is MORE THAN enough to raise “reasonable suspicion” to detain and question someone all Western countries, moron. The cops had the OBLIGATION to detain him and find out what’s going on. Perhaps someone who is a “journalist” cannot be suspected of a crime and detained? What kind of an imbecile are you?

            On top of that, you constantly go off on a rant about “East Germany” and the “Soviets”, “Hitler”, “brown shirts”, etc. in relation to Israel and Israeli posters here. That is a clear expression of bigotry, hate and anti-Semitism.
            Let go of the hate in your heart. Hate kills!

            Reply to Comment
    7. Blake Alcott

      +972 is very good, but not good enough. As long as it believes Israel is ‘occupying’ only the West Bank and Gaza, rather than all of Palestine, and gives almost no space to the Palestinian refugees, it might even be part of the problem. The problem being that it is Israel itself that is illegitimate, not just the things it does (e.g. occupy the West Bank, or restrict press freedom) that are bad.
      But I wonder: does +972 take this conservative position within the media reporting on Palestine because it has been self-censoring, or because it really believes the Jewish state IN PALESTINE should exist? That is, is it a Zionist media site by choice or because it must stay on the Israeli side of the intellectual line?
      Thank you.

      Reply to Comment
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