Censorship is alive and well in Israel

Of 83 books submitted to the Israeli military censor in 2017, 53 were partially redacted or edited.
Monday 23/07/2018
 An Israeli Army reservist reads a newspaper as he sits atop an armoured personnel carrier (APC). (Reuters)
 An Israeli Army reservist reads a newspaper as he sits atop an armoured personnel carrier (APC). (Reuters)

When thinking of censorship in the Middle East, many people, especially Americans, tend to think that most, if not all, Arab countries impose some form of censorship on foreign and domestic media. Many countries in the region do impose restrictions on the press but typically those affect domestic media.

Where foreign correspondents are concerned, the rules, when broken, are rarely enforced. Why? Because arresting foreign journalists is really bad for business.

Interestingly, the country the United States likes to identify as “the only democratic country in the Middle East region,” is the one with some of the strictest rules. That country is Israel. Despite its “democratic” labels, Israel’s military censors have been the busiest in the region.

The Media Reform Programme at the Israel Democracy Institute told the Jerusalem Post that, while there are “obviously secrets that must be kept away from the public eye, the role of the military censor is outdated.”

However, the censor is still busy. The Jerusalem Post stated the Israeli military censor banned the publication of 271 articles in 2017 and partially or fully redacted another 2,087 news stories.

There were 11,035 news articles submitted for review, a decrease from the previous year in which 13,396 articles were reviewed by the military censor, and 2,190 were partially redacted,” the Post said. A total of 247 articles were fully banned for publication in 2016.

Journalists in Israel are subject to censorship laws but that does not mean they must submit every article or have the military censor approve which pictures can be published.

Foreign correspondents in Israel use their discretion as to what can be sent out of the country. They know what the sensitive issues are likely to be. At the top of the list are the Jewish state’s nuclear programme and information that is considered threatening to the country’s national security.

Israel’s nuclear programme is widely known about, although Israel has never acknowledged that it has a nuclear programme and Israeli leaders simply refuse to answer anything relating to this sensitive issue.

The information provided in the Post’s report was released by the military censor following a freedom of information request jointly filed by the Movement for Freedom of Information and the +972 magazine.

In addition to the news articles, of 83 books submitted to the Israeli military censor in 2017, 53 were partially redacted or edited. The numbers marked an increase from 2016, when, out of 77 books submitted, 36 were redacted or banned from being published.

The rules driving the military censor come from laws enacted before the state of Israel was founded. The laws come from the time of the British Mandate.

The laws stipulate that any journalist working for Israeli media outlets must submit articles and all other items related to Israel’s security and foreign relations to the Israeli Military Censor before publication. More recently, this has included social media postings by journalists.

“The number of stories submitted and handled by the censor is considerably affected by the number of security-related events in a given year, as well as the media landscape,” the military censor said in a statement.

“The Supreme Court ruled that the censor would prohibit publication only if, in his opinion, there is a near certainty that the publication would cause substantial harm to the security of the state and that is the grounds for the disqualification by which the censor operates,” the statement continued, adding that “intervention in publications is minimal in relation to the security discourse conducted in various media outlets.”

The Democracy Centre told the Jerusalem Post that, instead of the military censor, it recommended that an advisory committee under the Prime Minister’s Office be established for journalists and authors to approach if they have potentially sensitive material in their articles.

On occasions when journalists believed the story absolutely needed to be told, they had -- and still have -- the option of travelling to Cyprus -- only a 30-minute plane ride away -- and filing from there. The worst that would happen is the journalist may get a reprimand upon return to Israel.