Censorship and democracy don't mix



Adar1 24, 5765

Censorship in general, and military censorship in particular, does not fit the age of freedom of information in which we live. The Israeli authorities, like those in other enlightened democracies, are supposed to be wise enough to understand that governments cannot and should not control public information. In light of the Internet, which spans the globe, the use of military censorship, even in Israel, ought to be sparing. Expanding the censor's powers beyond the minimum necessary contradicts the core values of transparency and freedom of information.

It is therefore surprising that the military censor, Colonel Miri Regev, decided a few months ago to set up a three-member committee, headed by former district court president Eliahu Vinograd, whose mandate is in essence to examine the possibility of expanding the censor's powers.

Given the statements emanating from the committee, there is a reasonable chance that it will recommend expanding the censor's powers - a recommendation that, if accepted, would upset the delicate balance between freedom of expression and national security. One of the committee's members, Professor Asa Kasher, even said that he intends to recommend strengthening the censor.

This trend toward strengthening the censor contradicts the High Court of Justice's key 1989 ruling, which stated that the censor is not allowed to prevent information from being published unless said information is almost certain to cause genuine harm to national security.

Ever since, this ruling has been the guiding light on this subject, and it served as the basis for the agreement signed by the media and the defense minister in 1996. Over the years, chief military censors Yitzhak Shani and Rachel Dolev internalized the spirit of the court's ruling, and in the more than 15 years since it was handed down, many things have been approved for publication that had previously been forbidden.

The current military censor has adopted an activist approach, as is evident, inter alia, from her insistence that a broad range of subjects need to be submitted to the censor, including items that have already been published overseas. A joint committee composed of representatives of the army and the media is currently hearing a complaint filed by the censor against Haaretz for having failed to submit to the censor for prior approval articles about a pilotless drone deal between Israel and China, which had already been reported abroad. Compounding the effects of Regev's activist approach are the many gag orders - far more than is reasonable - that are issued by magistrate's courts, which prevent publication of security affairs with legal ramifications.

For years, the censor has operated according to an agreement between the defense minister and the media, rather than according to the Mandate-era defense regulations that established it. The basic understanding on which this agreement rests is that the censor's goal is to prevent grave damage to national security, not to prevent discomfort or embarrassment to the government. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who has said more than once that the High Court's ruling strikes a reasonable balance between security needs and individual rights, must work to restrain the new and troubling winds that are blowing from the military censor's office.