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Censorship in Israel: ‘A unique model’

Privy to the nation’s top secrets, she keeps private ones pretty well too.

“She” is Sima Vaknin-Gil, Israel’s chief censor. It’s her job to keep sensitive information that could harm state security out of the media.

Appointed by the defense minister, she has tremendous powers but says she uses these sparingly, balancing state security and freedom of speech.

Most democratic countries balk at censorship, but a recent poll shows half of Israel’s Jewish population believes that freedom of expression is too free in Israel.

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Living in a conflict-prone region, many Israelis place a higher value on security, and Vaknin-Gil says she sometimes gets complaints from a public that asks: “How could you have approved this?”

She spoke recently with the Los Angeles Times.

Censorship is associated with totalitarian regimes. Sudan has censorship, Iran does. Why would Israel want to belong to this club?

It doesn’t. The censorship employed in Israel is a unique model that doesn’t exist anywhere else and is categorically different from that in the regimes you mentioned. Sadly, we too bear the title “censorship” for lack of a more appropriate term.

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That being said, censorship and democracy do not go together, by definition. Therefore, our job is to constantly regard Israel’s democracy and ensure only the absolute minimal harm to free speech, while guarding the secrets only.

What is the legal basis for the censor’s work?

The legal basis for the censorship is the 1945 defense regulations left over from the British Mandate. Categorically, these are draconic and grant the censor with far-reaching powers that no democratic country should entrust to a single body.

What are the powers?

The censor can shut down a newspaper. The censor can have someone jailed or searched if suspected to be concealing information — all on the censor’s decision alone. Speaking as the one formally entrusted with these powers, I can say it is unthinkable that a single, independent official would have such sweeping authority in a democracy, which is why the state put these aside and chose to work within a different framework.

What’s that?

The agreement is simple, stating that there is an understanding between the press and the censor that, in order to safeguard state security, the press undertakes to submit materials to the censor, who in turn removes only specific bits harmful to state security.

What constitutes “state security”?

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Some things are just obvious. Classic spheres of state security: Mossad [Israel’s intelligence agency], the IDF [the military], the GSS [domestic security]. Not everything they do, of course. Did I get in your way during the war? I don’t think you ever heard from me. But reports of a planned covert operation, or the IDF has some unique warfare … or there is particularly sensitive intelligence information, then these matters by definition come under the headline of “state security.”

That can be subjective. How do you decide?

In 1989, the Supreme Court set a single, strict legal [criterion] for censorship. The censor may prohibit publication only in case of “imminent certainty of actual harm to state security.” I cannot ban something only because I feel like it or think it’s wrong to publish. “Imminent certainty” is not easy to prove, and the burden of proof is mine.

Politicians might be tempted to take advantage of censorship to suppress information that could be politically damaging or just personally embarrassing. Can’t the system be abused?

This is precisely what the law had in mind in determining the autonomy of the censor, who is subordinated to absolutely no one but the Supreme Court. A politician cannot call the censor and ask to prohibit a report that would harm his image, reputation or other interests. In my five years, never have I received an inappropriate request. And even if I were to be approached in this way, there is no one who can force me to do this. The censor’s independence is sacred.

Can your decision be appealed?

Israel has built-in mechanisms for safeguarding free speech. And speaking as a citizen, I welcome this. It is a good thing that they make it hard for the censors rather than the journalists. I say this unequivocally.

To avoid turning to the Supreme Court over every disagreement … there is an arbitration committee.… Its composition — a judge, a journalist and a defense official — is such that the element working hardest to defend his positions … is the censor. The committee is approached in case a journalist has violated censorship or if a journalist wishes to appeal the censor’s decision to ban a report. Here too the onus is on the censor.

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I have appeared before the committee only five times in five years, which proves that the system works and that the censorship is balanced. If journalists thought the censor was going crazy, I’d be before the committee every other day. But I’m not.

Can you quantify your work? How many items do you review, approve or ban in a given period?

An item can range anywhere between a one-line Internet report and a book that takes eight months to work on — and we go over hundreds of thousands of these every year. Eighty-five percent of these … return to the writers untouched. Another 10% to 12% are treated with tweezers-like precision that involves altering or cutting a word or perhaps tweaking the location of a sentence.... Around 2% require slightly deeper work, like cutting a paragraph, and only 1% are either banned entirely or temporarily withheld.

What about the local practice of quoting “foreign reports” — isn’t this a trick for laundering information and bypassing censorship?

This is a common misconception. It doesn’t bypass the censor’s office, it’s approved by it. I don’t censor reports in America, Europe or India. My job isn’t to keep secrets from the Israeli public but from enemy intelligence. And if they’ve already read it in the Los Angeles Times in English or Der Spiegel in German, there’s no point banning it in Hebrew.

Army, society and media are changing. Is censorship adapting too?

We have to respond to technological developments with an emphasis on the new media. If I wanted to monitor the Internet tightly, I’d need to employ 30,000 censors, like China. Israel has 34. So I concentrate 80% of my power on the 20% of Internet publications that lend reports the highest degree of credibility.

The Internet’s advantage is also its disadvantage. The endless information is good for us, since it’s hard to extract the correct information from the mix and, once the information is out there, it gets lost in the big ocean of information. But some things do slip out, that’s the truth. The Internet is definitely a challenge.

Sobelman is a news assistant in The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau.


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