Opinion |

How Israel's Military Censor Helps Arms Dealers

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte holds an Israeli-made Galil rifle at Camp Crame, northeast of Manila, in 2018.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte holds an Israeli-made Galil rifle at Camp Crame, northeast of Manila, in 2018.Credit: Bullit Marquez /AP
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

About five years ago I published a report about an arms deal by Aeronautics, which included suspicions of criminal behavior on its part. The company, which was recently acquired by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, manufactures armed drones, which “commit suicide” on the target.

The deal under discussion was made with an Asian country, and in order to promote it, the company executives allegedly violated the law and Defense Ministry regulations. As a result of the article, the police and State Prosecutor’s Office opened an investigation, which led to the filing of several indictments. The trial has yet to begin.

The report, including the name of the country, was approved by the censor. However, immediately following publication, the unit in charge of security in the defense establishment (Malmab) hastened to the Rishon Letzion Magistrate’s Court and requested a comprehensive gag order. This, despite the fact that the story had already been published, as mentioned, and was widely covered in several other media outlets in Israel and abroad.

The judge, in an absurd move that could have been taken from “Catch 22,” accepted the opinion of the police and the defense establishment. The censor’s office, due to heavy pressure from the Mossad and Malmab, changed its opinion and ruled that the publication was damaging to state security and foreign relations.

The censor’s submissiveness, not for the first time, was additional evidence of its weakness and obsequiousness in the face of the defense establishment. That is why it was refreshing and encouraging last week to receive a notice from the censor that it was lifting the ban that has been imposed on the media for some 30 years – against reporting that Israel has attack drones.

Perhaps in the early years, after the defense industries and the Israel Defense Forces developed and operated the drones (which at the time were called unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs), there was justification for keeping their existence a secret, to improve Israel’s military edge over its enemies. However, gradually, when the drones came into use in all the war zones, the secret was out. The entire world, including Israel’s enemies, knew that Israel used them frequently.

That is why the censor’s demand that the Israeli media use the mantra “according to foreign reports” became a joke at the expense of the Israeli public. It attests to the censor’s assumption that Israeli journalists are spokespersons of the defense establishment. In doing so it turns them, willy-nilly, into “partners to a secret” and denies their independence.

An Israeli journalist, like a journalist in any democratic county, is supposed to publish and interpret information, and such publication is not meant to constitute proof or an official confirmation of its accuracy. The decision regarding drones was made by Chief Military Censor Brig. Gen. Doron Ben Barak, before his retirement. It is welcome, but it must serve only as a first step.

There are several other issues that the new chief military censor, Brig. Gen. Kobi Mendelblit, must remove from the list of articles “requiring submission” for the censor’s approval. One of them is arms deals.

The censor continues from time to time to reject articles dealing with the subject, or to force the Israeli media to rely once again on “foreign reports.” There is no other democratic Western country that forbids its media to publish information on arms sales.

Here we have another example of a blow to freedom of expression by the censor, which is often conducted in a manner that is arbitrary to the point of being illogical. Over a decade ago it rejected, on orders of then-director general of the Defense Ministry Gabi Ashkenazi, my report about the visit of a delegation composed of the heads of the Indian defense establishment, who came to Israel to sign a major arms deal.

The reason was that the publication would embarrass the Indian government. But the censor does not have to take the embarrassment of a foreign government into consideration.

Arms deals are primarily an economic or diplomatic matter, and in most cases the censor’s explanations – that publication of an arms deal will harm foreign relations or Israel’s security – are only weak excuses. In fact, the ban is designed to prevent the embarrassment of the Israeli government, which, by means of its “weapons diplomacy,” nurtures corrupt ties with tyrannical regimes that violate human rights.

That happened in the 1970s with the apartheid regime in South Africa, with the military juntas in South and Central America in the 1980s and the 1990s, and in the past decade with the military junta in Myanmar and with undemocratic countries in the Arab world.

By its behavior, the censor’s office is protecting dubious regimes, helping Israeli arms merchants and contributing indirectly to corruption and the destruction of moral values, and even to a violation of the law: because there is almost no arms deal with a dictator or a problematic government that does not involve bribery.

Israel is strong enough to deal with reports that are not to the liking of the government or the defense establishment. Despite the bogus anxiety and manipulative behavior of the latter, one report or another won’t cause the collapse of the country.

The censor must recall that it is an independent authority, and although the chief military censor wears a uniform and is appointed by the defense minister, he is supposed to exercise independent judgment and not submit to the whims of the defense establishment. Otherwise, he is failing his responsibility.

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