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Censor that

It's time for Israel's military censor to take its final bow, but local press is still the freest in the region

Back in the early ‘70s, I wrote a weekly article from Israel for my hometown newspaper. I banged out two copies on my typewriter, and I took them with me on the bus to the Government Press Office in downtown Jerusalem. The military censor was on the second floor.

The censor would carefully read my article, cross out anything that violated the rules and give one copy back to me. I would put it in an envelope and seal it, and he would stamp the back so that anyone could see if it was tampered with. Then I would take it to the central post office nearby and hand it to the clerk, along with the censorship forms I filled out. After looking everything over, the clerk would put it in the mailbag, and it would appear in the paper a week or two later.

Contrast that to what’s going on right here.

I write an article, post it on my Times of Israel blog, send the link around to the people on my email list, and there it is. Instantly. It can go all around the Internet in minutes, seconds, long before the censor has any idea it’s been written.

But the censor is still around. They closed the office in Jerusalem, but reporters in Israel are still required to submit articles on security and military matters to the military censor for approval.

I remember some arguments I had with the censor over the years. I won a few, lost a few. After one knock-down, drag-out over the phone about a feature I wrote, my new boss, noting the heated tones and colorful language, observed, “I guess it’s not a good idea to piss you off.”

In simpler times, when it was actually possible for the censor’s office to monitor everything going out of the country, including listening in to my live broadcasts, it had a role to play in protecting Israel’s security. Now the Israeli military censor’s office has outlived its usefulness.

The latest example is “Prisoner X,” the Australian who committed suicide in an Israeli prison. I don’t pretend to know the actual facts of the case. Journalists who breathlessly report new “facts” every day don’t know, either. They’re repeating what they’ve been told by officials with a stake in the outcome. So let’s not go there at all.

Instead, let’s look at what would have happened without censorship.

The fact of the man’s suicide would have emerged shortly after it occurred. There would have been a one or two-day flap. Then it would have been attributed to the tough ways of the intelligence world and forgotten.

As soon as the censor gets involved after court orders forbidding publication, things get blown out of proportion after they inevitably leak.

And Israel’s image as a police state with strict censorship is reinforced.

In fact, Israel’s local press is by far the most free and most irreverent in the region, right up there in the top five in the world. A sample day’s headlines disparage the government, the military and practically everything else that moves.

Freest press in the neighborhood (photo: Mark Lavie)
Freest press in the neighborhood (photo: Mark Lavie)

Foreign coverage of Israel reflects that. We can even cover the prime minister’s ice cream budget as if it’s an ugly scandal. There are almost no restrictions on where we can go and what we can write from Israel – except details of military operations in progress and the like.

Yet it’s standard practice for foreign publications to emphasize whenever the military censor takes something out of an article. Some outlets even feel the need to mention every time they submit a story to the censor, whether or not a deletion was ordered.

Contrast that with the rest of the region.

Syria flat out bans most foreign correspondents and intimidates the local ones. Access to places where news is happening is restricted at best.

Egypt imprisons some editors and writers whose papers criticize the regime.

Reporters working in Iran tread carefully to avoid being deported unceremoniously, or imprisoned.

In the West Bank, reporters who don’t toe the official line are frozen out of sources.

In Gaza, reporters are just plain terrified of Hamas.

It’s like that across the region, and it colors the coverage – what you see and what you hear, or mostly what you don’t see or hear.

Rarely do we tell you about this. The reason should be obvious. If we’re writing about one of those places, we can’t very well say, um, we can’t bring you the whole story, because, you know, we don’t want our local reporter hanging upside down by his heels in a dungeon. Because just writing that could bring about such a result.

Where there’s such effective intimidation, there’s no need for censorship.

Censorship should be considered a legitimate tool when a nation with a free press and freedom of speech is surrounded by enemies, and it has to count on its military and, even more, its intelligence agencies, to keep it safe. The fact that in the age of the Internet, censorship is ineffective and even harmful doesn’t mean all the restrictions should be removed.

Israeli military censorship should be abolished because it doesn’t work. It should be replaced by strict enforcement of laws banning the release of classified information. In other words, punish the source, not the messenger. That is already happening to some extent. The case of soldier Anat Kam leaking thousands of classified documents to a reporter and getting a jail term as a result is an example of the system working, though “free speech” and “human rights” junkies were less than pleased, and the reporter was also prosecuted.

For now, though, censorship still applies, and articles written in Israel about military matters must be submitted to the censor. That includes an article about censorship. So I should be submitting this one to the censor. Not that anything would be deleted, but even so – I’m waiting till I’m back in Cairo, out of the reach of Israeli military censorship, to publish this one.

Censor that.

About the Author
Mark Lavie covered the Middle East as a foreign correspondent for more than 40 years.