Conspiracy of Censorship

An alien invader dropping into the Middle East in the first week of October would have assumed that Israeli political and defense correspondents have no sources of their own and are wholly dependent on award-winning international journalists with an inside track.

Every story on the Mossad’s bungled assassination of a Hamas official in Amman began, “According to foreign reports…” or, “If Israel was indeed behind the operation in Jordan….” In some cases, the qualifying clause was repeated paragraph after paragraph.

In fact, Israeli reporters are no slouches. They have better sources and tend to understand more than their foreign brethren. Once the full horror of the fiasco was recognized, they were ahead of the field. But their television and radio stations, newspapers and magazines acquiesced in an extraordinary conspiracy of censorship and self-restraint orchestrated by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his spokesman, Shai Bazak.

At a secret meeting with Israeli editors, Netanyahu confronted them with a dilemma worthy of George Bernard Shaw. Like most secret meetings in these parts, it became public (courtesy of the “foreign” New York Times) within hours. The editors’ dilemma was to choose between their profession and their patriotism. To a man, the editors played safe and chose patriotism.

Early in the affair, Netanyahu gave them a detailed briefing on what happened in Amman, on a strict “not-for-use” basis. One editor, who made his name as a military correspondent, said: “You’re trying to shut us up.” A witness tells me that the prime minister answered with a smile: “Yes.”

As the correspondents were leaving, Bazak instructed them on four things they “could not write” and reminded them that every story had to be submitted to the military censor before publication. The four things were: that the two hit men held in Jordan were Israelis despite their forged Canadian passports; that Netanyahu had ordered the Mossad chief, Gen. Danny Yatom, to send an antidote to save the life of the intended victim, Khaled Meshal; that the prime minister had spoken to King Hussein; and that the release of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin from an Israeli prison was part of an exchange deal.

The editors’ decision was challenged as soon as the king fulfilled his side of the bargain and sent the Mossad duo home. Tommy Lapid, a senior commentator with the tabloid Ma’ariv, led the offensive. He was soon followed by Haim Zadok, chairman of the Press Council and former minister of justice.

The editors are unrepentant, but the debate will probably make it harder for future governments to muzzle the media, unless there is a “clear and present danger” to national security.

In a signed editorial, Lapid thundered: “The fact that the Israeli media are forced to use foreign sources in order to detour around the censor does not add to the dignity of a democratic regime. It is ridiculous and infuriating. It humiliates the media and the public, and it does not help the government.”

Lapid, a robust, maverick right-winger, knows about making choices. He is a former director-general of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, who submitted to security constraints when he was convinced they were justified. This time, he was not convinced. The press, he argued, was too compliant. The prime minister’s main concern was not security, but to buy time to get himself out of the mess.

“Given our security situation,” Lapid told me, “censorship is sometimes acceptable. It is generally applied very liberally. But in the Jordan case, the borderline between security censorship and political censorship was fuzzy. If, for one day, the press is requested to make it appear that it takes its news from foreign sources, that may be all right. When this continues for a few days, it becomes a farce, abusive and self-abusive.

“Everybody in Jordan, Israel and the world knew Israel was responsible. We shouldn’t have been pushed into a situation where we were deliberately pretending we were fools. There is a moment when everybody knows that quoting fictitious foreign reports, pretending we are the only journalists in the world who don’t know what’s happening, is obviously untrue.”

Haim Zadok scolded the media for giving in too easily. “They were not vigorous enough,” the Press Council chairman said, “in insisting on the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression. The prime minister is entitled to make requests, but they are not binding. Editors should exercise their own judgment on how far to go in accepting those requests.

“The editor must be the ultimate judge of what he is going to publish and what he is not going to publish. They accepted the prime minister’s request without taking advantage of the right of appeal they now have against the censor.”

Under a 1995 agreement between Israeli editors and the military, the censor may ban publication only where there is a demonstrable risk of substantial damage to security. The censor, a serving officer with an intelligence background, is not the final judge. An editor can appeal to a three-person panel, representing the media and the army under an independent lawyer. To avoid undue delays, the panel must convene within 24 hours.

“I expect editors to resist excessive interference and to remain true to the principle of freedom of the press,” Zadok said. “They didn’t live up to it in the present case.”

The editors retorted that they did not take orders from the prime minister or anyone else. They listened to a legitimate request, then made their own individual decisions.

Hanoch Marmari, the editor of the heavyweight daily, Ha’aretz, explained: “We took account of the fact that early publication of the fact that these guys were Israelis might put their lives at risk. We take that into consideration whenever people’s lives are at stake. We gave the government time to bring them back, but not because somebody demanded it of us or forced us.”

The Ha’aretz editor complained that it was easier for critics to comment after the event than to take decisions in real time. “I try to publish whatever I can as soon as possible. Otherwise, you find yourself sitting and debating every line. I hope our readers understood the coded expression ‘foreign reports.’ I think we did the right thing.”

So does Jeff Barak, editor of the English-language Jerusalem Post, who also attended the meeting in the prime minister’s office. “The argument put forward at the meeting for us not to say that Israelis were involved was that it would make it more difficult for King Hussein to release the two Mossad agents,” he said. “It was said that the Arab world would view reports from the Israeli media as having the official backing of the Israeli government. Given that there were two Israeli agents caught in Amman and that negotiations were under way for their release, I wasn’t prepared to take the risk of undermining those negotiations.”

Once the immediate crisis was over, Netanyahu paid them back as only he knows how — by blaming the media and the opposition for all his problems. Asked by a television reporter whether he planned to resign over the affair, he urged the media to search their own souls. “The media,” he said, fuming, “has, in recent days, released a web of lies and distortions. You circulated reports based on things which never happened, about myself and the head of the Mossad. They are fabrications.”

An alien invader would draw his own conclusion from the beleaguered prime minister’s concept of gratitude. Will the patriotic Israeli editors?

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