Shut Down the Military Censor

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Benny Gantz, center, in the Knesset, August.

Last week Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited Singapore, a leading customer of Israel’s arms industry, which has hosted many Israeli officials over the years. The authoritarian leaders of Singapore, which is surrounded by Muslim states, seek to downplay their ties to Israel, and Gantz tried to have his cake and eat it too – to be proud of his trip abroad while also respecting his hosts, who asked to keep a low profile. Gantz’s solution was to announce his visit to the media while instructing the Military Censor, which reports to him, to prevent the matter from being made public.

Last Sunday the communications team told the media that Gantz was leaving for Singapore and that a media blackout on the destination was in effect until his return. On Wednesday, however, his office issued a follow-up announcement: “In light of political-military sensitivity, we request that the defense minister’s visit to Singapore not be mentioned at all. It is permissible to write that the defense minister made a security-related visit abroad during the week. Every item on the topic must be submitted to the censor.” The worn-out blackout held up until Friday, when the veteran journalist Nahum Barnea reported in Yedioth Ahronoth that Gantz went to Singapore. Even after the disclosure, the censor attempted to silence other media outlets.

The Military Censor operates under a High Court of Justice ruling permitting it to block publication in the event of “clear and present danger to national security.” Gantz’s visit does not pass this test, as his own conduct shows: A person who wants to keep a visit secret doesn’t boast about it in a public statement and then impose secrecy on the media. Many senior Israeli officials often travel abroad covertly. These visits remain secret, because the travelers assign responsibility for keeping them that way to themselves, not the Military Censor and the media.

The affair is one more reminder that the institution of the Military Censor is anachronistic, undemocratic and ineffective. It busies itself mainly with closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. Instead of directing their efforts to protecting the “core secrets” of Israel’s security, military censors are still blacking out with a marker entire paragraphs whose contents are in any event all over the internet. To bridge the shortcomings of censorship in the information age, an archaic and draconian mechanism of publication bans has ballooned.

At the end of her assignment, the Israel Defense Forces’ former chief military censor, Sima Vaknin-Gil, reached the conclusion that the unit, which is still based on emergency regulations of the British Mandate and undemocratic agreements with the press from the pre-state era, must undergo a comprehensive reform. But a reform is not enough. The Military Censor must be shut down in favor of the creation of an effective mechanism to protect actual state secrets and guarantee freedom of expression and debate on security issues. This is not Singapore.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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