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Press freedom vs. state security: Israel's Anat Kam faces jail for leaking army files

Israel today lifted a gag order on Israeli media reporting on the case of Anat Kam, who allegedly passed up to 2,000 classified army documents to the newspaper Haaretz. The case has raised fresh questions about whether press freedom is being sacrificed for state security.

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Institutionalized censorship in Israel has come under fire by advocates of press freedom on many occasions in the past few years, particularly following Israel's wars with Lebanon in 2006, and in Gaza in 2009. Israel still has an Office of the Chief Military Censor, and Israeli reporters covering security affairs must have their articles submitted to her office for clearance.

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But the chief censor, Col. Sima Vaknin-Gil, said in a Haaretz interview published Thursday that this court-issued gag order – in which she had no role – was inappropriately long, and should have been reassessed as soon as the media deluge began.

In a 2008 interview with the Monitor, she said she provides Israeli papers with a list of 36 "censurable topics," and that about 85 percent of the articles submitted to them by editors are returned unchanged.

"Censorship in a democratic country has a bad connotation, and we want to minimize the feeling that the public is subordinate to the military," Col. Vaknin-Gil said at the time.

In its most recent report, the Washington-based Freedom House says press freedom "is respected in Israel, and the media are vibrant and independent." It adds: "While print articles on security matters are subject to a military censor, the scope of permissible reporting is wide."

Indeed, Vaknin-Gil authorized Blau's major investigative report in Haaretz in November 2008 - apparently based on the documents provided by Kam - to be published.

Did Kam endanger Israel or its citizens?

Yaron Ezrahi, long one of Israel's most vocal advocates for democratic values, says Kam's case presents many complications. On the one hand, he notes, it's natural for any state to look sternly on the theft of information by a soldier with access to sensitive documents. And while the gag order seems an impingement on the public's right to know, a different gag order on the corruption case involving Israel's last prime minister, Ehud Olmert – coincidentally lifted today – proved very useful for state investigators working on the case.

"There is a sense of dissatisfaction at the imposing of a gag on this event, but it broke on exactly in the same day as the lifting of a gag restriction which, it turns out, has been extremely instrumental in getting to the core of the Olmert corruption case," said Ezrahi, senior fellow emeritus at the Israel Democracy Institute.

What will determine how Kam is punished will be whether or not prosecutors can prove that the information she allegedly took and then provided to the Haaretz journalist actually endangered state security or the lives of Israelis.

"It raises questions of freedom of the press, but it is not yet at all clear that the censorship was unwarranted," Ezrahi says. "Only the [security services] know what kind of documents are now in the hands of this journalist, who doesn't want to come back to Israel and is staying in London." The Independent, a British newspaper, revealed on April 2 that Blau was hiding in London while his editors tried to negotiate the terms of his return.

"If among these 2,000 pages of documents there are details of a major secret operation that involve the lives of Israeli agents, and [Kam] passed it on, even unknowingly, and it could foil an operation or hurt the life of an agent somewhere, it has major consequences," says Ezrahi.

Kam's lawyer, Eitan Lehman, said at a press conference on Thursday, however, that none of the actions Kam is accused of undermined national security. If the documents were on the level of state secrets, he suggested, Vaknin-Gil in the censorship office never would have allowed Blau's story to run.

"At no stage was any damage caused to the State of Israel's national security," Lehman said. "There was certainly no intention to cause such damage."