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URGENT: Journalists' petition against the prosecution of Uri Blau

[Please scroll down for the actual petition – everything preceding it is my own commentary].

Earlier this week, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein informed Haaretz reporter Uri Blau he will hold a hearing for him at the end of the month, to decide whether to put him on trial. This step would have disastrous ramifications for Israeli freedom of the press, wounding it behind recovery. At the bottom of the post is a petition to the Israeli Attorney General, urging him not to press charges against the journalist; you can read more about the campaign on Noam’s blog.  As of 7 May, nearly 200 Israeli journalists have already signed the Hebrew version of the petition. Now it’s time for their colleagues from around the world to add their names.

Who is Uri Blau?

Although young, Uri Blau is one of the key investigative Israeli journalists of his generation. He has such notches on his belt as the reports on suspected money laundering operations of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (the latter is likely to be indicted later this year, largely thanks to Blau’s reporting), the Israeli military’s deliberate violation of Supreme Court orders, and, only yesterday, an investigation of a government-supported organization in Jerusalem, which serves, it appears, as a front for a radical right anti-intermarriage gang and employs former members of terrorist organization Kahane Chai.

Why is he being put on trial?

The state wishes to prosecute Blau for holding on to classified documents without permission. The documents were command meetings minutes and orders showing senior IDF officers deliberately violated orders of the Supreme Court. These documents have been seen and cleared for publication by the Israeli military censor, and Blau returned the documents to the military as soon as as the story was out in print. I’ve written elsewhere about the technicalities of the case and how it relates to the prosecution of Blau’s source, former soldier Anat Kamm. It’s worth noting the conduct of Haaretz and of Blau himself have been criticized, especially in regard to their relationship with Kamm. Nevertheless, this is certainly not a reason for Blau to go to jail, and for journalism to take such a blow on his behalf.

A decision to indict Blau would be an end to independent journalism on military and security affairs in Israel, and quite possibly investigative reporting of corruption, too: In both cases much of your key evidence comes in the shape of private or classified materials, with the gravity of the offense and outrage they document outweighing the much lighter offense you might be committing by accessing and publishing them.

Why is this such a big deal?

No journalist in Israel has ever been prosecuted for perusing classified material without permission – a key instrument in journalistic work. If Blau is sent to prison, no journalist may dare to use that instrument again – and Israeli journalism will lose one of its strongest and most critically important functions – both for its role as a keeper of Israel’s democracy and for the role it plays in international affairs around the Middle East.

What can we do to help?

What follows below is my translation of the Hebrew petition, which has been endorsed by the campaign. If you are a journalist, commentator or editor, please take a stand with your Israeli colleagues and email kelev.shmira@gmail.com with your name and affiliation to add your signature (“freelance” is also fine).  This is a moment of critical, unprecedented importance for the freedom of the Israeli press. Please also circulate it among your contacts and colleagues.

The petition itself:

Dear Mr. Weinstein,

We – journalists, commentators and editors from around the globe, fearing for the professional freedom of our Israeli colleagues – call upon you to refrain from prosecuting Haaretz journalist Uri Blau for unlicensed possession of classified materials. Some of us have our reservations regarding the conduct of Mr. Blau and Haaretz in the affair. But all of us are concerned with the ramifications a decision to prosecute Mr Blau would have for the vitally important work of the Israeli media.

On March 23, the Israeli prosecution service announced it intends to charge Mr Blau with “retaining secret information by an unauthorized person (without intention to harm the security of the state)”, pending a hearing before the Attorney General. Trying a journalist for possession of classified  secret documents would gravely infringe upon the freedom of the Israeli press. Such a move would immediately constrain our Israeli colleagues’ freedom of action, and their ability to expose corruption and other wrongs afflicting their society.

Putting Mr. Blau on trial would set a precedent that would damage investigative journalism, the very essence of free media, beyond repair. It is impossible to expose corruption without using documents – including classified documents – to build up the factual infrastructure for the report. In this specific case, we should stress that the report based on the documents in questions was submitted to and confirmed for publication by the Israeli military censorship, We call upon you not to prosecute Mr. Blau, and to make do with the fact that Mr Blau had already returned all the classified documents in his possession to the state, as per an earlier agreement between Haaretz and the Israeli security services.

Prosecuting a reporter in such circumstances, for the first time in Israeli history, is a careless step down a slippery slope, at the bottom of which lies an end to the ability of Israeli journalists and media to fulfill their task as the guardians of democracy.

With great concern,

The undersigned:

Email Kelev.Shmira@gmail.com to add your signature.

Click here to go to the campaign website for the latest signatures – they will be updated once a day.

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    1. Y.

      “The state wishes to prosecute Blau for holding on to classified documents without permission. The documents .. showing”.

      Actually, only 2 out of 2000 documents (at least) are related to Blau’s ‘scoop’.

      “orders showing senior IDF officers deliberately violated orders of the Supreme Court”

      People keep saying that, but that doesn’t make it true – and the justice system does not think so. Blau’s defenders should put up (sue the IDF or Naveh) or shut up.

      “Blau returned the documents to the military as soon as as the story was out in print”

      Completely untrue according to all accounts.

      “No journalist in Israel has ever been prosecuted for perusing classified material without permission”

      Blau didn’t merely pursue a leak. It was a fishing expedition. Why else were there an overwhelming amount of unrelated documents in his possession otherwise? What probably happened was that Blau got Kamm to give him lots of documents, and later he wrote a story based on 2 of them.

      Would you allows another person to spy on you because you might be doing something wrong? At best they’d need a probable cause. Now, you can say that government is special – but so are secrets and the lives depending on them. Even if the IDF did something wrong (which is very debatable), it does not mean the IDF is not allowed to keep any secrets whatsoever.

      To allow Blau’s conduct would essentially annul all secrets in government. After all, anyone can be a journalist. All a spy would need is to make up a story based on a few documents out of thousands, and suddenly an entire humongous leak becomes kosher…

      Reply to Comment
    2. Piotr Berman

      A spy is an agent of a foreign government or someone selling secrets to foreign government (or hostile organization). Neither Kamm nor Blau fit the description.

      The way one gets “documents” from a computer is a download, which is by the very nature rather wholesale. According to Y., Blau would behave better if he deleted all files before reading them. Except that Shabak wanted to see all of them.

      Obviously, both Kamm and Blau felt that the two files described conspiracy to commit murder. Most patriotic citizens, including most jurists, feel that killing the enemies is not murder. But reasonable people may differ, especially if the enemies are unarmed, asleep etc. The fact that no investigation of IDF personel was opened after Blau articles may mean that Y. was right, no crime was committed, or that IDF is licensed to commit crimes.

      I think that IDF generals have as much chance of being tried for crimes committed in the course of occupation as Iranian Supreme Leader. In Iran it is a bit more obvious, because Supreme Leader is also a Supreme Jurist. One the other hand, there exists a body that can depose and try the Supreme Jurist, so in both cases, the impunity is more the matter of practice than theory.

      Iranian governmental theory and practice does not particularly cherish the principle of freedom of expression and a special place of investigative reporting in the fabric of society. Americans can abuse the leakers almost as well as Iranians, but have considerable regard for the journalists. Moreover, American government is usually pretty serious about agreements of immunity.

      Israel seems to keep the middle ground between Iran and USA. Apparently, any trick is fair to lure journalists into cooperations, and phony “agreements” are mere tools of the trade for Shabak. Should soldiers who disclose war crimes, NGOs that document them and journalists be all criminalized? If I recall, all of that was already proposed in the current Knesset. You know, the Supreme Leader of Iran is also called “Object of emulation”, and there is no shortage of emulators in the Knesset.

      Would I allow another person to spy on me because I might be doing something wrong? Well, anytime I am on an airport, I surrender my privacy. My e-mail can be checked by my employer.

      Does my government ever commit crimes? Does Charlie Daniels Play a Mean Fiddle? (make a web search if this sounds cryptic to you) Do I want my government to commit crimes with total impunity? Well, I prefer that if they do shit, they keep it to minimum, so it does not look too bad after an eventual leak. So yes, it is better if there are some leaks.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Sylvia

      Does the Buzaglo test apply? This is the question.
      In other words, were Kamm and Blau’s names Vanunu and Buzaglo and were they working for “Israel Hayom”, would they even have a passing mention on this site? Of course not.

      The preposterous notion that in the Internet age one must pass documents behind a bench in a public park to be considered a spy is an insult to our intelligence. You can pass sensitive information through online newspapers and individual blogs.

      We’ll be watching for signs of discrimination and double standards before the law. That won’t pass easily.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Leonid Levin

      I would love to sign the petition but I’m not a journalist.

      There will come a time when Uri Blau will be seen as a hero investigative journalist in Israel and elsewhere, just as Daniel Ellsberg is considered hero for leaking the Pentagon Papers or Alexandr Solzhenitsyn for revealing the truth about the GULAG. The ruling elites thrive on secrecy and obfuscation in order to fool their populations about their murky dealings. When it surves their purposes, they leak secrets themselves, again to manipulate public opinion.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Rashid Ali

      I think that Uri Blau should embarrass the zionists by asking for asylum in Egypt or even Syria. This would expose the farce of your “democrazy”

      Reply to Comment