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What’s a 21st Century Censor To Do?

Israel puts bloggers and Facebook posters on notice

[Jerusalem] Bloggers are not known for circumspect or conformist inclinations, so it should probably not come as a big surprise that the first the world heard about new outreach undertaken by Israel’s military censor, Col. Ariella Ben-Avraham, through which select bloggers and Facebook posters have been informed that their sites are subject to the same military censorship that applies to established media, came in the form of a blog post entitled “Anachronism with a Touch of Kafka.”

Yossi Gurvitz, the author of that post, operates a personal blog entitled “Friends of George [1]: Left-Wing and Liberal Critique and Follow-Up on Israel’s Collapse.” A picture of George Orwell addressing an old-school BBC microphone is part of his cover page.

His Facebook page, also called “Friends of George,” defines itself as a “News/Media Website” and “A blog for political, media and social critique written in principle by Yossi Gurvitz.”

When Gurvitz received a letter from the military censor’s desk demanding that he submit all material “that necessitates examination” for review before publication, he assumed he was being pranked.

He was not. Ben-Avraham, who has been in office for a little over three months, sent letters to about 30 bloggers and Facebook posters, to “update and remind them of their obligations, as we do to all media. We refresh it periodically,” she said, in a conversation with The Media Line.

Facebookers and bloggers did not take kindly to being “reminded” of these strictures.

Gurvitz, in particular, was incandescent, and announced that “I have no intention of meeting this demand. The meaning of this demand is the eradication of new media in Israel, whose core is the speed of the response. I am examining legal proceedings available to me.”

Israeli social media was not shy about its skepticism, some pointing to the futility of chasing Facebook posts prior to their publication, others wondering about implications for freedom of expression.

Mitch Ginsburg, the former military correspondent for the news website The Times of Israel tweeted “I’m going 2 say that the current censor’s tenure will b marked by less thoughtfulness than her predecessor’s.”

In fact, some of the outburst could be traced to the feeling, engendered in part by the previous censor, Brig. Gen. Sima Vaknin-Gil, that the military had chosen a completely different route.

In an article she published last summer in the professional journal “Law and Army,” Vaknin-Gil, who today serves as director general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, served up a generous helping of skepticism about the role of the censor in the 21st century.

“In an era when the leakers become cultural heroes,” she wrote, apparently referring to Edward Snowden, among others, “a preliminary preventive mechanism is irrelevant.”

She called for an entirely new conception of civilian, not military, censorship limited to cases of extreme sensitivity.

“Where there is a high risk of damage, the censor will protect the subjects with stronger means, and on other subjects it will permit suitable openness,” Vaknin-Gil proposed. “To prepare for the future there is need for a fundamental change. The censor must change in light of the changes in national life in Israel.”

Israeli media and foreign media stationed in Israel are obliged to submit all security-related coverage to the military censor under “emergency protocols” in place since the British mandate, which ended in 1947.

The media here is subject to what increasingly appear to be absurd restrictions for the internet age, in which international media publish whatever they like using the dateline of a bureau abroad, following which Israeli media repeat, in rote and occasionally mocking fashion, “according to foreign sources…”

Luke Baker, the chairman of the Foreign Press Association (and not a known facebooker) told the Media Line that he thinks “if the law is going to exist, it has to be equal to everyone given the way information is disseminated these days. How on earth they can enforce it is anyone’ guess—and that raises the question if the law is justifiable in the first place.”

Ben-Avraham and other sources within her office underscored the fact that “only 30 public pages that define themselves as news sites received our letters. No private sites are being monitored.”

But the prospect that private Facebook pages are being spied upon is not what has exercised the Israeli blogosphere so much as the tactic itself.

Gurvitz received a letter, for instance, but Tal Schneider [2], who may be Israel’s most influential political blogger, told The Media Line she has not.

A source within the censor’s office told The Media Line that “censorship exists only to prevent damage to national security. We look at which sites have the greatest credibility for the enemy, and not every site carries the same weight, though in general traffic online is huge and ‘security-related chatter’ online is only growing.”

Israel’s national media apparatus has appeared in recent months somewhat unmoored. Last week, after a terror attack at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate which resulted in the death of a young border policewoman and the resulting deaths of her three attackers, and in reaction to a headline posted in New York City by CBS News that reported “3 Palestinians Killed As Daily Violence Grinds On” without citing the attack, Nitzan Chen, the director of the Government Press Office, threatened to revoke foreign journalists’ press credentials.

Israel is a small, tightly-connected leaky society. During the 2014 Gaza war, classified predictions of casualties that had been presented to the security cabinet became a regular part of the evening news. In 2006, Israeli generals critiqued each other’s tactics in unattributed but reported interviews throughout the Second Lebanon war.

While the law states that censorship violations can result in treason charges, it is almost never enforced. No example of damage to national security by a blogger has been made public, if such exist.

“The fact that it is difficult to do does not mean we should give up,” the censor’s office source said, pointing out that most of the bloggers had not complained and do not wish to harm national security. “It’s a huge challenge, no doubt, it’s the challenge of censorship in 2016. Is western democracies that place the highest value on freedom of expression.”