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Israel's Censorship Laws Shine a Spotlight Instead of Hushing Up the Blunder

Government censorship in modern times - be it in Israel, Syria or Iran - becomes a pathetic attempt to turn back the clock to a time before WikiLeaks, Facebook and Twitter, and before bloggers who don't give two hoots about the censor.

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
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Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

I imagined yesterday that I met Mossad chief Tamir Pardo and that I tried to persuade him to remove himself for a day or two from the cloak and dagger world he lives in, from the whiskey and cigar-smoke shrouded discussions he attends - and to connect to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram instead. I just wanted him to discover how the media works in this day and age, how ordinary people live - people who aren't involved in security-related interrogations, scrambled telephone calls and lie-detector tests. Perhaps he would discover that beyond the highly fortified walls of his office, there is an entire world without restrictions and without constraints, in which people are free to exchange information, opinions and even photographs.

But then I remembered that Pardo is still living in the previous century, when information is kept in regimes' safes. When a regime wants to share that information, it does so, but when it wants to keep it under wraps - it does just that. I also remembered that the head of the Mossad is not alone and that he is surrounded by a huge bureaucratic machine which is constantly trying to stop time and imprison information. There are military censors and security officers, legal advisers and judges who tremble whenever they are presented with paperwork bearing the stamp "Top Secret." They all find it hard to come to terms with the concept of a free media operating in a democratic state, and they try to recruit the press to work with them, offering journalists a combination of confidential information and the threat of arrest.

For Pardo and his ilk, the Israeli media are a branch of the state; one with a lower standing than the Mossad, the Shin Bet or the IDF, but an integral part of the establishment nonetheless. That is why we are forced absurdly to quote foreign news sources about military operations, intelligence snafus and clandestine trials. Generation after generation, the military censor has explained to reporters that anything published by an Israeli outlet is seen by the international community as an official statement, whereas reports from foreign news sources are not. They argue that this is because Israeli journalists are privy to high-ranking politicians and top officers. They say that the enemy knows full well that the IDF has operated on its soil, carrying out assassinations or bombings, but that if the same report appears on Channel 2 or in Haaretz, the enemy will be humiliated and will be more likely to retaliate. If the report remains in the New York Times or on a foreign television network, the enemy's honor remains intact, as if nothing happened.

Of course, it is not just the honor of our Iranian, Syrian or Sudanese enemies that concerns the defense establishment and the intelligence community. Rather, it is the honor of their own bosses. As long as the report is only based on "foreign news sources," there can be no public discussion, no demands for an investigation and no calls for heads to roll. At most, an internal report is penned and then buried in some drawer. When there are no questions asked, mishaps can be whitewashed and the officials can cling to their image as omnipotent superheroes, deserving of endless budgets and political backing.

Sometimes the mishap is so severe and the excuses so lame that it is no longer enough to limit reporting to "foreign news sources" and more extreme tactics are required: paying a ransom for the silence of those involved, sweeping gag orders and the censorship of information readily available at the click of a mouse. The results are ridiculous and, instead of hushing up the blunder, they merely shine a spotlight on it. But Pardo and the others believe that if they just apply a little more pressure, the door will remain shut. In the meantime, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are awash with people forwarding the information, sharing links to foreign websites, expressing opinions - and utterly ignoring those who are making pathetic attempts to turn back the clock to a time before WikiLeaks, and before bloggers who don't give two hoots about the censor.

Never mind, though. There is a way to rectify the situation: In a few years from now, when Pardo retires, he will be interviewed for the sequel to "The Gatekeepers," and he will be able to express remorse and tell us how, in a democratic country like Israel, it's so important to safeguard freedom of expression, freedom of publication and freedom of information. At least as important as protecting the prestige of the intelligence and security services.

The front page of Haaretz, Feb. 13, 2013.

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