Events in Jordan Prove the Power of Israel's Censor Has Grown

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Israel's Military Censor, an institution that has no parallel in any other democracy in the world, must cease to exist.

 The incident in Jordan this week was a volatile event on a strategic scale. However, it would be justified to ask why it was deemed necessary to impose military censorship for over 12 hours on the very existence of the affair and its details.

You could say the censor’s judgment was mistaken. The government’s inclination to exaggerate the information’s security value, even when it does not relate to core security, is natural. In some cases in the past, the censor acted on behalf of the defense establishment’s security – or the self-confidence of its chiefs – rather than on behalf of state security.

But the problem is the mere existence of this institution. The instrument in the hands of the decision-makers, in their desire to block security information, is draconian – a legacy from British Mandate times.

It allows the military censor to demand that journalists submit all dispatches intended for publication, remove any information from any platform, penalize harshly – and operate without any kind of effective supervision.

The Israeli Military Censor, an institution that has no parallel in any other democracy in the world, must cease to exist and all its powers must be revoked. The power to block a report that must not be published must be handed to the courts and judges who are equipped with the appropriate knowledge.

The Israel Press Council must send an official to represent the media, especially in discussions to extend gag orders, or set up a civilian authority to advise media outlets on how to avoid breaching state security.

Is this a subversive idea? Not according to Brig. Gen. (res.) Sima Vaknin-Gil, the former military censor. As soon as she retired from the post in 2015, Vaknin-Gil published an article in the IDF Military Advocate General’s periodical, calling for the abolishment of military censorship – a move that wouldn’t critically hurt state security.

Some claim that in this digital world, censorship is like King Canute, who went to the seashore, set his chair near the water and ordered the waves to stop rolling in. They say that anyone searching on Google could easily find a complete report of the incident in Jordan in respectable, reliable media sites. This would be a mistake.

It may have taken the defense authorities some time to understand they were no longer working with a small, defined media group and have to deal with information from various platforms, and also that the line between information inside and outside Israel is blurring. But one should not underestimate the defense establishment, whose strategic approach is simply: Why release something when it can be blocked?

The Jordan incident proved, as other events had, that the censor has more power than we would like to believe. This power exists because the censor today works with all media platforms, including social media, and because it sometimes even bans quoting foreign sources. It’s also because we’re not only dealing with censors but wider circles.

The censor has become a body that also enforces its smaller sibling, gag orders, thus multiplying its power. Presumably, legislation like the Facebook Law, giving courts the authority to order major websites to remove information that breaches security matters, also be enforced – at least partially – by the military censor. All this will add to the anti-transparency approach of the police and other state bodies like the Strategic Affairs Ministry.

The media subjects itself to the censor’s orders and gag orders, which are sometimes so groundless and fallacious it’s as if a black flag is posted on them. It is its duty to fight for the right to publish information, not sit around and wait for The Guardian, Australian television or social media to get involved.

A reform of military censorship is necessary not because leaving the existing situation as it is will empty it of all practical content, but because before our very eyes, it is becoming even more draconian and abusive than it was in the pre-digital age.

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler is head of the Media Reform Program and Open Government Program in the Israel Democracy Institute.

This piece was originally published in Ha'aretz.