Israel's Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein announced on Wednesday his intention to indict Haaretz journalist Uri Blau for possession of classified Israel Defense Forces documents.
According to a press release by the State Prosecutor's Office, Blau was in possession of thousands of military and top-secret documents, which were stolen from the IDF by Anat Kamm, an Israeli woman who was convicted in February of collecting, holding and passing on classified information without authorization.
Although the charges include the terms "severe espionage," Blau is not charged with an espionage offense.
The justice department said that the decision was made "after taking into account all of the relevant considerations, including the need to restrain the enforcement policy in order to maintain the Israeli press as a free press which fulfills its duty."
"However," the statement read, "the attorney general believes – based on the positions… of the State Prosecutor's office, the Shin Bet security service and Israel Police – that this case is an extreme one in terms of the severity of Blau's actions."
According to the State Prosecutor's Office, Blau knowingly held thousands of documents and "betrayed his duty – and later his commitment before the state – to cease possession of them."
The statement also added that Blau "could have easily prevented harm to Israel's security without hurting his sources… the potential damage of possessing the documents… was immense."
The AG said he has concluded that there is no connection between possessing such documents and practising journalism .
Haaretz said in response that the decision "is unfortunate and sets a precedent in terms of its ramifications on the freedom of press in Israel, and especially on the ability to cover the security apparatus."
MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima) praised the decision, saying that, "In his actions, Blau endangered Israel's security not less, and perhaps even more, than the actions of Anat Kamm."
Meretz chairperson MK Zehava Gal-On, on the other hand, criticized the decision. "The attorney general has once again proved his lack of sensitivity to basic democratic principles, and with one decision, he has turned Israel into a state in which journalists stand trial for receiving classified information regarding failures in the security system," she said.
The president of the Israel Press Council, Judge Dalia Dorner said that this was not the first time that the council had decided that it was not right to file charges against a journalist in possession of secret documents in the line of duty. "The Attorney General has to exercise judgment, and I regret the decision that has been taken." Dorner went on to say that, "Many journalists that deal with these issues hold these kinds of documents, and this kind of a decision has a chilling effect. We hope that the authorities would consider the heavy damage that this decision has on freedom of the press. And I regret this decision."
The Association of Israel Journalists meanwhile came out strongly against the decision, saying that it "endangers freedom of the press, which is the soul of democracy."
"In the framework of journalistic work and the special relationship between journalists and their sources in sensitive roles, a journalist is exposed to information, much of which has security implications. As people who act according to ethics and the laws of the country, journalists in Israeli media publish security-related news only after gaining approval from the military censor. This is how Uri Blau acted."
"Every investigative journalist has in their possession files that were leaked from unofficial sources. We do not know another way to reveal instances of government corruption, injustices and offenses to the public, whose perpetrators would prefer to continue uninterrupted," the association said.
A group of seven leading military affairs commentators issued their own statement, saying they were disturbed by Weinstein's decision to indict Blau. "Having reported on the defense establishment for decades," the statement said, "we deal daily with gathering information defined as confidential. Even if Blau exceeded agreements made with him and acted improperly, or with a lack of good faith, the attorney general's indictment ... is the crossing of a red line that constitutes a dangerous precedent for press freedom in Israel."
The statement went on to warn against a legal precedent that would render the defense establishment immune to criticism. It was signed by Roni Daniel of Channel 2, Alon Ben-David of Channel 10, Carmela Menashe of Israel Radio, Yoav Limor of Israel Hayom, Ofer Shelah of Maariv, Alex Fishman of Yedioth Ahronoth and Ron Ben-Yishai of Ynet.
The Jerusalem journalists' association said the attorney general's decision "sets Israel back a generation" and "calls into question" the characterization of the country as a true democracy. The group said the decision harms the standing of the press, and noted that Blau's reports had the approval of the military censor.
Kadima MK Nachman Shai, who is a journalist by profession, said Weinstein's decision was liable to strike fear among Israel's media outlets and prevent them from fully doing their job. MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima ), however, praised Weinstein's decision, saying that, "through his actions, Blau endangered Israel's security not less, and perhaps even more, than the actions of Anat Kamm."
The attorney general's office called the potential damage from unsecured possession of the documents "huge." If the materials had fallen into the hands of hostile forces, it could have harmed state security and endangered the lives of Israeli soldiers, it said, adding that the documents contained a variety of plans for military operations, as well as summaries of a range of IDF deliberations, information on deployment of military forces, investigation summaries, IDF situation assessments and other information.
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