The recent arrest of an Israeli journalist who allegedly leaked materials to a reporter, and the gag order that followed, is just the latest in a long string of Israel's systematic attacks on press freedom.
Today in Israel, a nation so often hailed by Western commentators as the lone shining beacon of freedom and democracy in the Middle East, sits Anat Kamm. Kamm is a 23-year-old muzzled female journalist, under house arrest for her role in exposing a secret Israeli assassination plot by leaking government documents to Ha’aretz, one of Israel's most prominent dailies. She faces the possibility of life in prison. Uri Blau, a reporter for Ha'aretz who covered the covert plot, has fled to London, fearing for his safety and freedom.
Kamm's story has been difficult to piece together, since there was a gag order that kept anyone from covering her arrest and surrounding events until April 8. Violating the gag order can carry harsh punishments, including shutting down a publication. We do know from recent reports that Kamm’s house was vandalized by Israeli settlers, and that Blau will be returning leaked documents to the government. But the details are foggy. Israel essentially made a journalist - and her story - disappear.
Dov Alfon, the editor-in-chief of Ha'aretz, acknowledged his paper is challenging the gag order and standing by their reporter, telling the UK Guardian that, “Israel is still a democracy and therefore we intend to continue to publish whatever public interest demands and our reporters can reveal."
Alfon is absolutely right to make the connection between freedom of the press and democracy. One cannot truly exist without the other, and this point is often made by staunch defenders of Israel when they attack nations such as Iran for lacking press freedom. This is precisely why this incident should be so troubling to Americans. In the US, it is often taken for granted that Israel, which receives more than $3 billion annually from the US in aid, is a true democracy, despite its harsh treatment of Arab citizens in Israel and in the Occupied Territories. President Obama has claimed that the US-Israel relationship is "mutually beneficial" as both countries "share common values, histories, and a dedication to democracy." But clearly the values are not identical. Unlike Israel, in the US freedom of press is seen as essential to a functioning democracy.
As stunning as the Kamm affair may seem, it is far from an isolated incident. Over the years, Israel, known for its restrictive military censorship laws, has become notorious for thwarting journalism in various ways: they have repeatedly barred journalists from covering certain issues, prohibited reporters from entering Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, engaged in violent attacks against foreign journalists, bombed and attacked media outlets, and jailed reporters on numerous occasions. These abuses show that, in addition to the crimes committed as part of its occupation of Palestine, Israel has shown contempt to the basic rights of Israelis as well. Worse, it lessens the ability for people all over the world to understand the important issues and events taking place in the Middle East.
Systematic Censorship: Israeli Censors in Action
Despite its glowing reputation as a strong democracy, Israel has a systematic, institutionalized system of censorship. While the country's Supreme Court has "affirmed that freedom of expression is an essential component of human dignity," according to Freedom House's annual report on press freedom, "the country’s basic law does not specifically address the issue."
All news articles are subject to censorship by the Israeli Military Censor, and while not all articles are screened, those about especially sensitive military issues, such as nuclear weapons or military actions, are watched very closely. In 1982, the New York Times published an article titled "Censorship by Israel: How It's Carried Out." It reported that Israeli military censorship "applies to foreign newspaper and wire service dispatches transmitted from Israel during both war and peacetime on military and security issues," and noted that articles on sensitive issues "are to be submitted to the censor before they are sent abroad.
This censorship has been used very recently, not only in the Kamm arrest, but also in Operation Orchard, when Israel bombed an alleged nuclear reactor site in Syria. In 2005 a BBC reporter was banned from the country for not showing the nation's censor video footage of an interview he did with nuclear whistleblower, Mordechai Vanunu.
Perhaps no issue has been as heavily censored as Israel's nuclear program. Israel is widely known to have a large stockpile of nuclear weapons, but refuses to allow any international oversight, or even admit to having them. This is rather ironic, given Israel's regular refutations of Iran for not cooperating enough with international inspectors with its nuclear program. Aluf Benn, writing in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, observed the Orwellian nature in which Israel is "censoring the past," engaging in what he calls, “an offensive … aimed at trying to conceal the country’s nuclear history, much of which has already seen the light of day." He described how Israeli officials arrested various authors who published books about sensitive issues, such as Avner Cohen, author of ”Israel and the Bomb.” Benn asks: "Is it illegal even to ask questions about nuclear matters? Do former officials have to die with their lips sealed? Is there no time limit on old secrets?" These questions reveal the extent of Israel's insistence on keeping the public from understanding the reality of its policies.
The Gaza Blackout and Restricting the Foreign Press
Israel's infringement of the press extends beyond Israeli journalists. Since Israel controls access to the Occupied Territories, it can exert a great deal of control over the ability of foreign journalists to enter the territories, and for Palestinian journalists to leave. This control over freedom of movement is one crucial way that Israel attempts to keep its actions hidden from the public.
Israel's refusal to let Western journalists enter Gaza during the 2008-09 invasion was especially disturbing, as it enabled numerous war crimes to take place with minimal press oversight. The decision was condemned by news outlets and press freedom groups all over the world, and prompted Freedom House to downgrade its status from "free" to "partly free." Not even The New York Times had a reporter in Gaza during the invasion.
The policy had the desired effect. "An Israeli official told me they were delighted at a BBC TV correspondent broadcasting from Ashkelon in a flak jacket," wrote Chris McGreal in the UK Guardian, “reinforcing the impression that the Israeli city is a war zone when there is more chance of being hit by a car than a rocket."
What the journalists did miss was the collective punishment of the "people of Gaza as a whole," concluded the Goldstone Report, a fact-finding mission of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Goldstone Report called the war an effort to "humiliate and terrorize a civilian population, radically diminish its local economic capacity both to work and to provide for itself, and to force upon it an ever increasing sense of dependency and vulnerability."
A small sample of the carnage that most media members were unable to cover (but were chronicled by the Goldstone Report and other human rights organizations) include: the bombing of the Al-Maqadmah mosque while hundreds of people were praying inside that killed 15 people; the killing of 21 members of the al-Samouni family, including children, who were located in a house by the orders of the Israel Defense Forces; and the use of white phosphorous in attacks on two hospitals filled with filled ailing civilians. Israel also bombed the United Nations-run Al-Fakhura school, killing 35 people.
Speaking on this issue, Danny Seaman, Israel's press officer, openly expressed pleasure about how the absence off the foreign press - who he called a "fig leaf" for Hamas - greatly benefited Israel." Take the UN school [where 42 people were killed by an Israeli shell] for example," he told McGreal. "There's a lot of questions as to what actually happened. If the foreign media had been there, it would have had much more of an impact on the conflict than it has at the moment. For the first time, when Israel raised questions, journalists had to address these issues and not get caught in feeding frenzy of reporting the story."
Another example of Israel's infringing on foreign journalists was on display earlier this year when, in January, Jared Malsin, a young Yale graduate attempted to fly back to the West Bank , where he worked as an editor for Ma’an, a Palestinian agency that covers the occupation, after a trip with his girlfriend outside the country. While at Ben Gurion International Airport, he was held and interrogated for eight hours by Israeli officials, before being jailed for a week and then deported out of the country.
Malsin was guilty of merely doing his job. He was, as he described his job as the English editor of the paper, giving "voice to people who don't have a voice,” by telling stories that would otherwise go untold. Israel officials gave no real explanation for the detention and deportation, other than to acknowledge that Malsin was "criticizing the State of Israel," from “inside the (Occupied) Territories.” But few doubt the motives were political. His jailing sends a stern message to other journalists who might consider covering the plight of the Palestinians.
The move was sharply condemned by press groups throughout the world. "We condemn this intolerable violation of press freedom," said Aidan White, the head of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), a global union of media professionals. "The ban of entry in this case appears to be as a reprisal measure for the journalist's independent reporting and that is unacceptable ... This kind of interference has no place in a democracy." Similar condemnations were made by many other groups including Reporters without Borders, the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate and the International Press Institute, which made the astute observation that Israeli "authorities should recognize that the right of press freedom applies to all journalists, not just to reporters who write favorably about Israeli government policy."
The health of Israel's democratic values have also been called further into question light of Israel's refusal to allow the entry of iconic academic and critic of US and Israeli policy, Noam Chomsky, to the West Bank from Jordan last weekend. This comes on the heels of rejecting the entrance of others who are well known for expressing critical views of Israeli policy, such as Norman Finkelstein and Richard Falk. The meaning of blacklisting critical voices and what it means for Israeli democracy is not lost on many Israeli commentators. "The decision to shut up Professor Chomsky is a decision to shut down freedom in the state of Israel," wrote Boaz Okun, Yedioth Ahronot's legal affairs commentator and a retired Israeli judge, of Israel's decision to reject Chomsky from entering the West Bank.
Violence Against the Media
Even worse than jailings and deportations, other media organizations and journalists have been violently attacked and intimidated.
On July 13, 2006, just a day into Israel's 34-day long devastating invasion of southern Lebanon, Israel bombed Al-Manar, the Beirut-based television station of Hezbollah. Even though Israel was fighting with Hezbollah, this bombing was a clear violation of international law. As Human Rights Watch noted when condemning the attack, "It is unlawful to attack facilities that merely shape civilian opinion; neither directly contributes to military operations."
Much like Israel's (along with the US) isolation compared with international consensus on solutions to the peace process, they were once again at odds with most of free world on the issue of targeting press outlets in combat.
"The bombing of Al-Manar is a clear demonstration that Israel has a policy of using violence to silence media it does not agree with,” said White, the General Secretary of the IFJ. “This action means media can become routine targets in every conflict. It is a strategy that spells catastrophe for press freedom and should never be endorsed by a government that calls itself democratic.”
Israel was so irked by White's statement they threatened to leave the organization, according to the Jerusalem Post. This is consistent with Israel's contempt for international institutions that attempt to hold Israel up to reasonable standards of transparency.
Violence against smaller groups of journalists has also been a frequent issue of late. In late January, Israeli forces attacked Rami Swidan, a photographer for Ma’an News Agency, Ashraf Abu Shawish, a cameraman for Palmedia, and Reuters photographers Abdel Rahim al-Qusini and Hassan Titi. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Swiden said, "Israeli soldiers told the journalists they were not allowed to take pictures because the area was a closed military zone. When the journalists refused to stop, soldiers hit them and attempted to take their cameras before throwing teargas canisters and stun grenades."
The incident came just months after two other journalists were assaulted "while covering clashes between settlers and Burin’s residents,” CPJ reported. Just recently, CPJ has documented seven cases of attacks or harassment of journalists, and asked Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in a letter to please "take decisive action to end the harassment of journalists and bring the IDF’s practices in line with international standards of press freedom, allowing journalists to conduct their work safely and without deliberate interference."
Why This Matters to Americans
Israel is not the only country to crack down on press coverage they don't agree with. But given its reputation as a democracy, which is often hailed as a major reason they are the largest recipient of US foreign aid in the world, Israel’s long record of harassment, censorship and violence against reporters is especially unfortunate.
It is crucial that journalists from other countries such as the US, which are often able to say what Israeli reporters are not, bring attention to suppressed issues in the region. Ideally, the US government would also apply pressure by threatening to withdraw military aid if it does not reform its press policies, though this seems unlikely given the US refusal to take similar measures to end settlements.
A major reason for Israel's crackdown on media is that it allows the occupation of Palestine to continue with minimal scrutiny. American taxpayers who subsidize the Israel military, and all citizens of the world who wish to expose the suffering of those on the receiving end of state violence, should fight hard to enable the truth to come to light in such an important part of the world.