Censorship and Israel’s ‘Free Press’

Arrests and Gag Orders Bring New Attention to Israel's Censorship Regime

by Jason Ditz, April 08, 2010

Does censorship in Israel resemble that in Iran? It is the provocative title of an article in the major Israeli newspaper Haaretz today, and the implied answer, given that members of the Israeli parliament are calling for the paper to be shuttered for revealing “classified” documents that showed the Israeli military defied court orders regarding the rules of engagement, is a decisive “yes.”

While the Israeli military’s chief censor insists the policies aren’t “draconian” at all, it is likely not lost on the Israeli media that most Western nations don’t have a “chief military censor” at all, and certainly not one through whom all coverage of the military has to pass.

Moreover, though journalist Anat Kam’s house arrest for leaking classified documents probably isn’t without precedent in many other nations, the fact that the military ordered her detention kept as an official state secret for months is disturbing to many, and that they continued to bar Israeli media outlets from reporting her detention for weeks after it was comment knowledge in the Western press is just perplexing.

The military censorship regime sometimes is arbitrary and bizarre. Last year two Palestinian reporters from East Jerusalem were convicted of violating the censorship law by reporting on the invasion of the Gaza Strip when it actually happened, instead of waiting for legal clearance to report that it was officially happening. The delay amounted to a difference of only an hour or two, but the reporters saw months in jail.

Despite Israel’s pretense of having the only “free press” in the Middle East, the nation actually has an extremely onerous collection of restrictions on what reporters are allowed to cover, but perhaps even more troubling than, the regulation of the press is the seriousness with which the government treats violators.

Kam’s leak uncovered Israeli military plots to flout the law, and seemed to be the sort of thing that whistleblowers are meant to uncover. But the hysterical response from the Israeli parliament has included everything from condemning the paper as “anti-semitic” to calls to close the newspaper for “national security reasons.” The incident may have brought renewed focus to government censorship in Israel, but the government seems quite comfortable in its censoring and at least so far there does not seem to be any real upswing in opposition to the policy.

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