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Haaretz January 18, 2005

The return of the censor

By Aluf Benn

A sense of deja vu has settled in at the newsrooms of the print press and the broadcast stations. The military censor, which had seemed to be an annoyance that had passed from this world, has been resurrected and once again is making things difficult for the free press in Israel. The chief censor, Col. Miri Regev, has been conducting a campaign to revive enforcement of the censorship arrangements on reports concerning security matters.

Military censorship belongs to an age when the regime knew what was best for the citizenry and did not trust the public's maturity and responsibility. Like the TV eraser, which prevented home viewers from seeing color on their TVs; like the "exit passes" that reservists needed to leave the country. Both of those are gone, and the public did not riot in the newfound freedom. The reserves are proud of the skyrocketing motivation of the soldiers, even though every soldier can leave the country without a special permit from his unit.

The censor's authority is derived from mandate-era regulations that allowed the authorities to shut down newspapers and impose draconian punishments on them. It works by agreement: The media promises to send the censor pre-publication copies of articles, the censor does not use its legal authority to enforce the law through criminal proceedings, and differences are worked out through a special tribunal.

Ever since a 1989 High Court of Justice ruling that the censor can cancel an article only if there is "a near certainty of tangible harm to the state's security," the censor shrank and democracy and free speech developed.

In recent years Israel has gone through a war with the Palestinians with a weak censor - and security did not collapse. Now, Regev wants to go back to the old centralized ways. The editorial departments are required to send the censor everything - readers' letters, reports about ministers traveling abroad, Palestinian complaints about the IDF in the territories. Channel 2 has been called to a tribunal and apologized about revealing the dispute between the U.S. and Israel over the sale of Harpy drones to China. Haaretz is next in line.

Now Regev wants "teeth for the censor" and is proposing changing the law to read that the tribunal can impose hundreds of thousands of shekels in fines on a media outlet. She appointed a committee headed by retired judge Eliahu Winograd to examine the existing arrangements. In the background is the threat of a new censorship law, which everyone fears, understanding that there is no place for such a law in Israel's law books.

It is difficult to complain about public servants who take their jobs seriously, want to use their authority and are responsible for the balance between preserving security and freedom of speech. But Regev and her people are expending energy on nonsense. Diligent workers are wasting their time reading the words "nuclear weapons" and writing instead, "nuclear capabilities," or forcing journalists to quote "foreign sources."

In the world of Israeli censorship, every report in the Israeli media looks like an official confirmation and the exposure of a secret. Maybe things were like that in the days of the mandate and Ben-Gurion. Nowadays there is no reason for the media to be an instrument for the implementation of "the policy of nuclear ambiguity," or other government decisions.

Any arrangement requiring prior delivery of news items to the censor is a distortion. Defense sources chatter about secrets to reporters, on the assumption the censor will kill the item. The media is drowning in an obfuscatory bureaucracy.

According to the existing list of issues subject to censorship, any report about foreign loans to an Israeli bank is subject to censorship. So are "news items about people who get lost near the border." And this is all in the days of the Internet, when up-to-date photos of the Dimona reactor are online at globalsecurity.org, as is Sde Micah, described at the site as an Israeli missile base, with detailed explanations and professional analysis.

The problem is not Regev, but the existence of the military censor's office. It is time for it to follow the color eraser and the travel permits for reservists. Instead of trying to control the press, it should turn into an advisory entity that would warn reporters about possible harm to security. In unusual cases of leaks of real secrets and genuine damage, there are enough articles in the law to deal with offenders.

Copyright 2005, Haaretz