By TIA GOLDENBERG, Associated Press
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's military censor, which has long served as the country's guardian of state secrets, is suddenly under the microscope following a pair of sensitive reports broken by the international media.
An Australian broadcaster's story this week about the suspicious death of an Australian-Israeli prisoner held by Israel, following foreign reports of an Israeli airstrike in Syria last month, have revealed the limits of Israel's decades-long censorship rules and court-imposed gag orders. In today's Internet age, many are now asking whether these restrictions are even relevant.
The idea behind the objections is that in today's communications environment, when everybody is essentially a publisher with a potentially worldwide audience, to censor "the media" is somehow akin to censoring conversation itself, which Israel, as a democracy, would never conceive of doing.
"(Gag orders) are a tool that can't deal with the media reality we live in: a globalized, hyper-connected, hyper-fast world. There is no real way to control the spread of information," said Yuval Dror, an expert in digital communications.
The censorship office, which emerged from an agreement between editors and the government in the 1950s, has long wielded heavy control over reporting of Israel's military and intelligence forays abroad and over domestic affairs it wants to keep under wraps.
Journalists writing about potentially sensitive news must clear their stories with the censor's office before they can be published. It has the authority to block or even delete reports deemed threatening to national security, and violations of the rules can result in penalties, including jail time, for journalists. Israel's security establishment also often seeks court-issued gag orders on certain cases.
For years, the system was mostly able to prevent the release of sensitive secrets. But with the advent of blogs, Twitter and global news websites, the censor's office has appeared increasingly archaic.
Today, Israeli media are forced to quote "foreign sources" after international media divulge details, such as the reports of an Israeli airstrike last month on a weapons convoy in Syria.
Underscoring the limitations of censor's office was this week's report by Australia's national broadcaster that an Australian-Israeli man who worked for Israel's Mossad spy agency had hanged himself in an Israeli prison.
While the report was easily accessible on the Internet, and Twitter and the blogosphere were abuzz with details about the case, the censor banned local media from discussing it.
Adding to the confusion, the prime minister's office urgently summoned editors of the nation's major newspapers, apparently to discuss the case while ordering them not to write about it. Meanwhile, three lawmakers, who enjoy parliamentary immunity from censorship restrictions, gave speeches on the floor of parliament urging the government to respond to the Australian report.
Even so, newspaper headlines early Wednesday quoted the lawmakers' speeches but made no reference to the Australian report, which was still under gag order.
Later Wednesday, the censor finally permitted local media to cite the Australian report, and details of the case flooded all the main radio, TV and news websites. Much of the discussion focused on the relevance of efforts to contain information, both through the censorship and court-issued gag orders.
"It's the 21st century. You can't prevent these things from being exposed," said Yossi Melman, a security affairs commentator whose own article on the Australian report was removed shortly after being posted on the Walla! news site because of censorship. "And (Israel's leaders) don't want to learn a thing from the past."
The censor's office declined comment when asked about its relevancy in the digital age, but demanded this report be submitted for review and asked for changes in some of the wording, engaging in a semantic debate with Associated Press reporters.
In a front-page article, Aluf Benn, editor in chief of the prestigious Haaretz daily, accused the country's security establishment of being stuck in a long-past era.