The details of a controversial media case involving the transfer of secret Israeli army documents to a top Israeli newspaper were finally released on Thursday, pushing into the limelight the ways in which state security concerns here vie with – and sometimes trump – democratic values, especially press freedom.
Amid increased pressure to lift a gag order that was issued by a local Tel Aviv area magistrate court, the court cleared for publication on Thursday accusations that Anat Kam, a 23-year-old internet reporter, had stolen documents while she was serving in the Israeli army's Central Command office. She then provided the material to a senior reporter at Haaretz, Israel's center-left paper of record, who ran several stories based on the documents, an indictment filed against Ms. Kam in January says.
The resulting articles included an explosive story by the Haaretz journalist, Uri Blau, who showed that the army used targeted assassinations against wanted Palestinians even when they knew that arrest was possible, in apparent violation of Israeli Supreme Court rulings.
The case has unearthed – not for the first time – what advocates of civil liberties see as one of the more troubling features of life in a state perpetually in conflict with its neighbors: limits on freedom of the press. But to those primarily concerned about how to get the upper hand in an unfriendly region, censorship and secrecy play a crucial role in the seemingly never-ending war.
"This is part of a wider attack on freedom of speech in recent years, which includes harassment of demonstrators as well as court orders of censorship," says Dan Yakir, chief legal council for the Association for Civil Right in Israel (ACRI). "These are worrying signs. It shakes fundamental notions of civil liberties in a democracy."
Mr. Yakir led the push to get the court to release the gag order, along with Haaretz, Israel's Channel 10, and – finally, on Thursday – Israel's own attorney general. Pressure had mounted as details were already being reported in foreign newspapers in recent days.
Some gag orders are issued because they involve minors or other people deserving of protection, he says. But often, as in this case, the army or law enforcement authorities only have to declare something a "security" issue for there to be a total blackout.
"Magistrate judges quite easily issue gag orders based on requests from the security forces and the police, without any consideration as to the freedom of press and the right of the public to know," says Yakir.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a statement applauding the decision to lift the gag order on Thursday.
“We welcome the lifting of the gag order imposed in the case of a former soldier charged with leaking military documents,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “Possible violations of the Supreme Court’s decisions constitute a legitimate news story, and the Israeli media must be allowed to report on it.”
Israel's chief military censor speaks out
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.
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."