"Bryan, get up! Wake up!" Two months ago, three burly policemen not in uniform entered Bryan Atinsky's bedroom in Rehovot after quickly brushing past his wife, Efrat, who got up to see who was knocking on the door at 6:30 A.M. The three said they had a search warrant. "They didn't waste any time and started opening drawers and searching the shelves, but they didn't show us any document," says Atinsky, 34.
"When they finished, they said my computer was confiscated and that I must come with them for questioning. Efrat continuously asked what I was suspected of, and they said `you tell us.' In the end, I asked if it was because of the caricature." And indeed, it was because of the caricature.
Atinsky is one of the volunteer English editorial coordinators of the Israeli Web site of the Indymedia network, an international anti-globalism organization set up after the protests against the International Monetary Fund as it met in Seattle. Like all the other branches of Indymedia, the Israeli site, which has been closed for the meantime, also enabled surfers to post announcements, articles and creations as they wished, alongside reports written by organization activists.
While the major media outlets are subject to the control of several stockholders, Indymedia tried to create an alternative medium open to the public at large. Its agenda also differed from that of the major media outlets: it included, for example, extensive reports on Israel Defense Forces operations in the territories and on violence on the part of settlers, and of course, attempts to expose the seamier side of big corporations.
"We don't censor anything," says Atinsky, "but the editors have the right to erase the link to reports that call directly for violence, racist reports, clearly false reports or those that have commercial interests behind them. The reports themselves are not erased from the servers nor are the responses they elicit, because we believe in transparency and freedom of information. In most cases, the intelligent responses expose the cheap provocations."
On December 19, a Brazilian surfer, called Latuf, took advantage of the site's freedom to post a caricature depicting Ariel Sharon enthusiastically kissing Adolf Hitler. Following the post, the Police's Computer Crime Investigation Unit began an inquiry, with the approval of the attorney general, into the possibility of incitement and insulting a civil servant.
In the past, the police investigated several posts on the site and summoned its operators for questioning - among others, after another caricature posted by Latuf, which depicted Sharon dressed in an SS uniform - but this time, the responses surprised Atinsky.
Two days after the posting of the caricature and after news of the inquiry was reported in the media, the Israeli company that provided the server on which the site is located was swamped with threats from right-wing activists and complaints from users.
"They told us we had to find a different server," relates Guy West, another volunteer editor of the site, "and we had no choice but to take down the site. Within a week it was to be up again."
The next day the police knocked on the door of Atinsky, who is now editor of the Israeli-Palestinian magazine News From Within, and took him with them to the Computer Crime Investigation Unit offices in Bat Yam.
"In the station, they sat me down outside one of the offices, so I should wait for my interrogation," he relates.
"In the meantime the policemen who'd brought me in joked between them, and one of them picked up some sort of metal rod that was lying on the floor, waved it in front of me and said `this is what we use to hit suspects because it leaves serious bruises.' For him, it may have been a joke, but even so it was scary enough. I kept telling them that I wanted a lawyer, but they said that only in the United States does such a right exist, and that I could contact a lawyer only after the questioning was finished."
Atinsky was questioned for eight hours and only then did the interrogators allow him to call a lawyer. "They shouted at me that everything written on the site was my responsibility because the domain is registered in my name," he says. "They said that the fact that surfers can post whatever they want on the site was as if I had left a pistol on the table and left the room - even if someone else uses it, it would still be my fault. They kept on shouting and said that we have to start censoring the site, and that it cannot operate this way. They don't understand that freedom of expression doesn't refer to nice things that everyone wants to hear, but actually to the right to say hurtful things and occasionally also stupid and provocative things."
At the same time, Guy West, 29, of Herzliya, was also summoned for lengthy questioning. "The policemen asked us for all the IP addresses of surfers who had entered the site - not of one or two surfers, but all of them," he relates. "If the owner of the server had cracked and given it to them, they could have used it to monitor all of the organization's activists and supporters."
Three months have elapsed since then. For fear of police investigations, the site has still not resumed operations. Nimrod Keret, another activist with the organization, arranged not long ago to lease a server in Canada, and the site will apparently resume operations in another two to three weeks. West and Atinsky have since been repeatedly summoned for questioning, and Atinsky's computer has yet to be returned to him. "I've been weaned from Indymedia," says Atinsky, "the police succeeded in getting what they wanted."
The police request to censor surfers' responses on the open posting area of the Indymedia site and its temporary closure, prompts some tough questions about freedom of expression on the Web. "Questioning has long been a campaign of pressure and scare tactics and an attempt, without the jurisdiction to do so, to restrict freedom of expression," wrote Attorney Avner Pinchuk of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel in a letter to Attorney General Meni Mazuz.
The police investigation, according to Pinchuk, is based on a legal interpretation that is contrary to views that are accepted in Israel and around the world. "A committee set up by the Ministry of Justice determined that Internet service providers are not responsible for the postings of surfers or site owners," he says. "Even the rulings issued thus far around the world and in Israel support this view: the inclination is not to try the owners of the Ynet site, for example, because of the racist response published in its Talk-back forum."
In the case of Indymedia, says Pinchuk, the investigators could not get to the Brazilian surfer who posted the caricature and therefore they chose to investigate the site's operators. "Even if their investigation doesn't find anything," he says, "the police have in effect determined facts on the ground.
"Political activists or others who see how Indymedia's operators got in trouble will not risk providing an open platform to the public.
"The result will be that only large corporations, which can employ attorneys who will supervise the content posted by surfers, will be able to run `open' platforms on their sites. The other sites will not be able to take that risk."
Keret, in the meantime, is working on writing the new code for the site. "The site was closed because of the problems they made for Brian and Guy," he says. "The Palestinians engage in this kind of harassment all the time, and now we have it too. There are fewer and fewer human rights in this country and rightists suffer from this as well. Beyond that, what is happening here is absurd: the Brazilian surfer posted his caricature all over the world, and in the end also posted it on the Indymedia site in Israel. In other words, had we erased it, the entire world would have seen it and all the Israelis wouldn't have."
The new site will have two main changes: "First of all, our server will be in Canada, far out of reach of the police and the address will not end with `il' but with `org,'" says Keret. "Secondly, the mechanism enabling surfers to post reports will be different. Surfers will have three options: contribute information anonymously, and then it will appear in a more modest format that can be erased if it is problematic; contribute information in a more prominent location by identifying oneself and providing an e-mail address; or setting up a kind of home page where everyone can edit the news himself and decide what will be in the headline."
The Israel Police said in response that the police does not comment on investigations that have not been completed.