Outgoing IDF Chief Censor: Israel's Preventive Censorship Is Becoming Irrelevant

Brig. Gen. Vaknin-Gil suggests overhaul of censor's office, replacing military personnel with governmental body manned by civilians.

Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen
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IDF chief censor Brig. Gen. Sima Vaknin-Gil.  'Preventive censorship suited the era of print newspapers,' she says.
IDF chief censor Brig. Gen. Sima Vaknin-Gil. 'Preventive censorship suited the era of print newspapers,' she says.Credit: Shlomi Da'i
Gili Cohen
Gili Cohen

The Israel Defense Forces' chief military censor, Brig. Gen. Sima Vaknin-Gil, has presented some new suggestions for how her office should work in the future.

In an article in the IDF Military Advocate General's Corps' periodical Mishpat Vetzava (Law and Army), which she says was written with the support of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Vaknin-Gil proposes a new model for the military censorship and new legal foundations for its activities.

In her view, the present model, in which some staff in the Israel Military Censor unit (part of the IDF's Directorate of Military Intelligence) are army officers and others are civilians, should be replaced by a governmental body manned only by civilians and operating according to new regulations.

In the coming weeks Vaknin-Gil, who has served in her post since 2005, is scheduled to step down and be replaced by IDF Spokesperson Col. Ariela Ben Avraham. They will work together during a two-week transition period.

The outgoing chief military censor, whose office was initially conceived within the framework of 1945 British Mandate emergency defense regulations, believes a new modus operandi must be instituted so that media outlets will have more of an interest in submitting materials for the office's examination. For example, if an item is submitted for censorship, the organization that sent it in will be legally protected after the fact, whereas if it is not submitted, although it deals with one of a list of subjects that demand examination – which the censor hopes will be more limited from now on – that will be considered a violation of the new censorship rules she is suggesting.

Vaknin-Gil proposes that the punishment for not submitting reports to the censor be graduated, and enforced in a special court established for that purpose. Only at a time of emergency, however, will the new censorship body be able to prevent publication of a piece in its entirety. Today, writes the chief military censor in her article, there is a situation whereby “it is increasingly difficult to accept, both conceptually and practically, the existence of a preventive censorship of the type that exists in Israel."

Vaknin-Gil has already presented her proposals to the heads of the defense establishment and the judicial system. She believes that the changes that have taken place since the mid-1990s present “a significant future challenge to the balance that has been created throughout the years between the censor and the media,” and that, therefore, the activity and structure of the IDF censor's office should be fundamentally changed.

For example, she notes that “in an era when the leakers become cultural heroes (referring to Edward Snowden), a preliminary preventive mechanism is irrelevant.” Moreover, the decline of established media as principal sources of information and the transition to new forms of media constitute “a crucial challenge to the continuation of preventive censorship.”

Already now, according to Vaknin-Gil, the Internet presents a serious challenge to her office's ability to prevent publication of a given report, and in general to enforce its authority. At the same time, she adds that the advent of the Internet has led to a situation in which the credibility of the information is undermined.

“Preventive censorship suited the era of print newspapers and a hierarchical media establishment,” she writes, adding that in the next war the censor will lack the proper “legal and technological tools” to deal with damaging reportage.

“Where there is a high risk of damage, the censor will protect the subjects with stronger means, and on other subjects it will permit suitable openness,” Vaknin-Gil explains. “To prepare for the future there is need for a fundamental change. The censor must change in light of the changes in national life in Israel.”

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