Not on autopilot
Something happened that could dramatically affect Israel, even leading to war, and the local media is silent.
It is easy to claim that the Israeli press has been derelict in its duty for not fighting the censor's decision to block immediate and extensive coverage of - according to foreign media - the Israel Defense Forces operation in Syria. Moreover, rather cynically, the media could be blamed for still feeling the pinch of the public criticism in the wake of the Second Lebanon War, and therefore trying to please its consumers by draping itself in patriotism.
Some would even call this situation embarrassing. Something happened that could dramatically affect Israel, even leading to war, and the local media is silent. In and of itself, this silence only intensifies the journalists' dilemma, because it was clear that at some point the world media would begin publishing reports on this subject, and then the Israeli media could find itself facing two unflattering situations: not knowing what is happening at home, or knowing but, God forbid, collaborating with the government.
The third option, which seems to have been forgotten, may actually compliment the local media in a surprising way. Israeli journalists may have exhibited social responsibility. They know what happened, because they were briefed by many reliable sources, yet they believed it was in Israel's interest that they kept quiet. They may be wrong, but it seems that this time they appear to be deeply convinced in the absolute justification of silence, as opposed to being forced quiet from above.
The internal debate in the Israeli media revolves around the interpretation of social responsibility. Those who complain about the silence of the lambs believe social responsibility means providing the public with information, so that it can make informed decisions. It seems that from their point of view, every bit of information should have been published; to do otherwise would be derelicttion of duty. It is easy to write articles in favor of publication, complaining about the silence of the media, the army and even the politicians. It is a lot more dangerous to seek a High Court ruling against the censor's decision, asking the court to evaluate whether in this case, too, there is a "test of near certainty."
The media must not accept every dictate of censorship; it must not be lazy in the face of the claim that silence is best; nonetheless, it must not automatically argue that everything should be published. This would not only call into question the judgment and honesty of those who decide to keep quiet, but also its own judgment. Even the Supreme Court, during the activist tenure of Aharon Barak, ruled that the freedoms of expression and information are not absolute, and must take into account security considerations.
Publication does not lead a country to war, argue those who favor full disclosure of the Syrian affair. However, it could be argued in response that publication also does not prevent war. These two arguments can be put to the test of history, and it is reasonable to assume that both will be proven wanting. Similarly, it could be argued that every journalist who has spoken in favor of publication has experienced more than once, over his or her career, the need for silence - even eternal silence - even though he or she held information of interest to the public. Why was that justified? Because that reporter made the decision.
Eleven days after that mystery operation, it seems that the decision to keep quiet, or at least to control the flow of information, has proved itself correct. The Israeli authorities know we are in the era of the global village and the information superhighway. They also are aware of the legal trend in Israel toward backing freedom of expression as much as possible. As such, they are trying to adopt a medial path. Every consumer of news in Israel can now put together a pretty solid picture about what may have happened in Syria, and decide whether he agrees with it. He should not only have The Washington Post to thank for this, but also the local media, which provided him, in line with the censor's instructions, information that served both his interest and those of the State of Israel. This does not happen too often.