Israel's Military Censor Takes on Dozens of Bloggers, Facebook Pages

Military Censor asks some 30 prominent Facebook pages to submit military and security-related reports for review ahead of publication.

Chief Military Censor Col. Ariella Ben-Avraham; screenshots of two of blogs.
IDF Spokesperson's Unit; screenshots

Chief Military Censor Col. Ariella Ben-Avraham recently officially contacted some 30 bloggers and administrators of Facebook pages requesting that they submit items for review by the censor ahead of publication, provided they concern areas requiring review, according to the emergency regulations in force since the state’s founding.

There are several dozen subjects on this list – mainly having to do with the military or security, or information about the enemy – that media outlets are required to submit to the censor for review. Failure to submit such items to the censor constitutes an offense and defense regulations enable the censor to file a complaint with law enforcement.

Up to now, the censor has examined the sensitivity of information prior to publication mainly with the major media outlets, but also with rescue organizations, cities near the front lines and more. Now the military censor is asking dozens of operators of Internet sites that have a relatively large following to proceed similarly. These pages are mainly ones that give news flashes online, forums dealing with the army and security, blogs that describe themselves as dealing with the news, and certain popular Facebook pages.

Yossi Gurevitch who runs the “George’s Friends” page, which calls itself a “blog for social, political and media criticism,” wrote on his Twitter account Wednesday that the military censor informed him that it “must see posts and status updates” that he writes about the Israel Defense Forces and the security establishment ahead of time. Gurevitch said he did not intend to heed this demand and was also going to see whether there were any legal steps he could take against it.

Ben-Avraham also contacted dozens of operators of popular public Facebook pages that have at least several thousand followers. The censor wanted to obtain information on how to contact the people who manage these Web pages.

In recent years, the censor has tried to adapt to the developments in the world of communications, and began monitoring social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as blogs. In the past the former chief censor, Brig. Gen. Sima Vaknin-Gil, said, “I have no intention of entering into the personal diary of every citizen, and I want to make it clear that we are not looking at the Facebook pages of private individuals.”

Up to now, the censor only took retroactive action against publications of material considered harmful to national security. The censor’s computerized monitoring systems were used to examine online publications by established media outlets and others. But now the censor is asking independent publishers to submit their reports on matters concerning the military and security for prior review, before publication. This is a policy change that the censor says is required for adapting to the Internet age. The censor’s office stressed that they are not monitoring private pages, but only ones that are defined as public (and appear as “media” in the social networks).

The censor in Israel operates in accordance with the 1945 Emergency Regulations, which require media outlets to submit to it, prior to publication, any material requested by the censor. Data from the censor’s office shows that on average, 70 percent of the information requested is submitted in accordance with the aforementioned list of topics. Of all the reports that were not submitted to the censor, said Vaknin-Gil, only a very few would potentially have harmed national security.

In an article she published in the Military Advocate General’s journal “Law and Military” about six months ago, Vaknin-Gil proposed changing the model for applying censorship since it is no longer in keeping with the changes wrought by the Internet, and also advocated that new legislation be enacted regarding the censor’s activity, which would include a curtailing of the censor’s authority.

Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, head of the media reform program at the Israel Democracy Institute, called the censor’s directive “extremely borderline, in terms of the law based on the Emergency Regulations.”

“On the face of it, it looks like adding insult to injury: Not only do the defense regulations constitute an anti-democratic arrangement that does not recognize the right to free expression, the censor is now asking to expand these bad arrangements to the digital world, instead of fixing them. It is unreasonable that the system chooses to expand [the censor’s ] authority instead of using it in proper measure, under the perception that the world of 2016 can continue to operate in the reality of the beginning of the 20th century.”

The military censor responded: “The fundamental value of freedom of expression, its importance and the need to correctly balance it with safeguarding national security, is always at the forefront of the censor’s mind, and this applies to Internet publications too. The authorities of the censor, which are defined in the law and subject to the oversight of the Supreme Court, apply to every type of publication regarding national security, whether it be through traditional media outlets or another type of publication.

“The censor does not block the publication of all security-related information, but only of material that it is deemed will almost certainly harm national security. From time to time, the censor contacts relevant parties in order to underline the obligation to submit items concerning security for review prior to publication. In the past week, a number of Facebook pages that define themselves as news or breaking news pages were contacted in this way. No requests were made to remove any material.

“Let it be made very clear that these are not private profiles. They are all public profiles that define themselves as ‘media’ and are open to public scrutiny.”