Wednesday, October 3, 2007

"The Great News Blockade"

A short piece I did for the wonderful Index on Censorship. Original here. Russian version here and also here. Funny thing is it was supposed to have been an exposé, and the censorship got eased up just as the article went to "print" - after I spent two days pestering the censor and the spokespeople of the IDF for their comments. Hope you enjoy.

The Israeli government yesterday lifted some restrictions on the reporting of an air force raid on Syria. But the embargo on the story was extremely inhibiting for journalists, writes Dimi Reider

As Israelis tuned in to hear about what seemed, for a few terrible days, the opening shots in a long-anticipated war, reporters on the Knesset beat scrambled urgently for information. Ehud Olmert appeared in view, projecting his usual elastic confidence. ‘Prime Minister,’ shouted the reporters, ‘what is your comment about the Syrian claim of an Israeli infiltration?’ The prime minister didn’t even slow down. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he said, and disappeared behind the meeting-room door. For the next few days, this would be the only official comment the citizens would have on an incident that could have plunged their country into another war.

Three weeks on, there is still very little knowledge of what actually occurred in north-west Syria, or why. Aside from a couple of comments from low-ranking politicians and a heap of rumours, all the information we Israelis got came with the talisman prefix of ‘foreign sources claim’. Veteran columnist Gideon Levy bitterly complained in a Ha'aretz op-ed: ‘We can rely on friends like the United States: our faithful ally has once again come to our assistance. Were it not for the American media, we would know nothing whatsoever about that mysterious night...’

The stoic silence of Israeli leaders, usually notorious for their verbosity, may not be as remarkable. The politicians, the disgruntled officers, people’s friends and cousins in the intelligence service and all the usual sources appear to operate normally. Rather, what seems to be taking place, is classic, tight-screwed censorship. As of the night of the attack, a strict injunction order was imposed on all Israeli media, under the Emergency Regulations of 1945 - British WWII orders granting the state extensive powers, which continue to exist side by side with normal statutory law. Any material, including translations from foreign sources and op-eds relating to the attack, was faxed for censorship prior to going on paper or online. Some things got through; many things did not.

‘This is infuriating,’ said one prominent columnist, who preferred to remain unnamed. ‘If they want to keep officials in the government, the army, even the judiciary quiet - fine. The real problem begins when they are shutting up people trying to voice opinions. I’m not allowed to say whether I think what Israel did in Syria is right or wrong. I’m not even allowed to say whether there is anything to be right or wrong about.’

‘The newspapers, as far as I’m aware, have not tried to appeal to the courts to lift the censorship - or even for permission to inform their readers that it’s actually there. The media is not keen to get sued every other day, and the censors are not too fond of court appearances; so a kind of a working relationship takes place. I don’t remember the military censors being significantly challenged on any point in recent years.’

‘The Israeli media already knows what happened,’ says military expert Dr Reuven Pedatzur of Tel Aviv University. ‘They can’t write anything, because the censorship is very strict. I have no explanation for why it is so tight - normally Israel likes to brag about its military - but it’s very obviously there. If you read the papers carefully, you can see they’re dropping clues.’

One such article, by Amir Oren, Ha’aretz">appeared in Ha’aretz. Blaming Ehud Barak’s well-known fondness for silence and secrecy, he wrote: ‘...With a single order strictly enforced over civilians and soldiers alike, the entire country has become Sayeret Matkal [the General Staff’s elite special-operations forces that Barak once commanded]. [...] Ironically, Israeli military censors claim that it is the very credibility of the Israeli press and its reporters in the eyes of hostile regimes that vindicates preventing the press from publishing views - not facts.’

Speaking to Index, Mr Oren sounds just as circumspect, saying he does not wish to detail beyond what he had written in the article. Asked whether there is a sweeping injuction on the subject, he replies: ‘Injunction orders nowadays have a final clause prohibiting their own publication; I can’t really answer that.’

The Israel Defense Forces declined to comment on this story.

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