I am the bane of the Israeli censor and security services. I am proud of it. There is no need for censorship in Israel. If Israel wishes ever to be a normal country and western democracy it must end censorship, just as it must end Occupation: NOW!
The Ben Zygier tragedy is a case in point. Instead of arresting him and trying him and imprisoning him through a transparent judicial process that allowed Israel to know at least something about the case, three judges essentially gave up their judicial prerogatives and allowed the State to run roughshod over an innocent man. I say innocent because no matter what he may’ve done, nothing had been proven. He had not had his day in court. He’d been in complete isolation for eight months and been neither charged nor convicted of anything. For two years after his death, the State took the extraordinary position that nothing must be known by the public about him or his case.
To understand the position of the Old Guard, let’s examine what retired IDF Gen. Shlomo Gazit has to say (Hebrew) on the subject in Maariv (which I want to do especially because he gets a personal dig in against me):
Q: Then why not end censorship so as not to have to create the sorts of fictions that were used in the case of Ben Zygier?
There is no other substitute for censorship. In our reality, there are secrets which we must maintain. No one expects that the State would permit the media to name Shabak and Mossad agents.
Q: But bloggers like Richard Silverstein and foreign media investigative reports expose secrets that are no less important.
The conclusion to be drawn from this line of thinking would lead to the destruction of Israel.
Really. Does the U.S. face threats any less dangerous than Israel? In fact, some might say the threats we face are much more dangerous. Though we under the past two presidents have seriously compromised constitutional rights regarding counter-terror policy, we do not throw reporters in jail for reporting the identity of CIA agents. Though we have secrecy rules within intelligence agencies, we do not have censorship laws that entitle the CIA to compel the media to maintain silence.
Is the republic in danger because of this? No. Does this frustrate the CIA and perhaps make its work harder in some cases? Undoubtedly yes. But we here in the U.S. have made the decision to err on the side of openness rather than secrecy. Now, I realize that Bush and Obama have taken us far down a road leading in the opposite direction. In fact, in many ways they’re espousing polices that would be quite at home within the Israeli context. But in terms of press freedom, we still have a great deal while in Israel the press is muzzled at critical juncture as it was in the Zygier case.
Israel cannot be a democracy as long as it has military censorship. It cannot have democracy as long as editors may be summoned to the prime minister’s office and directed not to report on an embarrassing scandal simply because it would mortify the intelligence apparatus. I get hives when I read a columnist decrying censorship and the press’ inability to report the truth in the pages of a newspaper whose editor is betraying these very principles. And the editors are only partly to blame because if they don’t do the government’s bidding Bibi and his henchmen will take away their license.
This is not a free press. It’s truncated democracy at best. Real democracy means there are forces within society that are striving for different, even conflicting goals, with neither having dominance over the other. There must be a healthy press that can challenge the security establishment. That is what happens in a vibrant democracy.
It is simply unsustainable and untrue to claim Israel would self destruct if the names of Mossad agents were publicly reported in circumstances in which they do great harm to the country–or its claimed they have. Much more likely is that the intelligence services will protect their prerogatives and cover their asses behind the cover of censorship.
But let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that Gazit is right and censorship is good for Israel (an idea I reject). Even if this is correct, can such a model be sustained in the age of social media, in the age of digital democracy? Can information be stopped at the border like people? Can you throttle the internet? I suppose you can do it in China if you’re willing to invest a huge amount of political and financial capital in the project. But in Israel? Will Israelis stand for it? To a certain extent they might. But to go whole hog and ban access to critical information that citizens need to know to understand how their leaders make decisions? I don’t think they’ll go that far.
Proof of this may be seen in the early days of the Zygier case when nearly 30,000 people visited this blog, well over half from Israel. Israelis were thirsty for information. They weren’t content to be stifled like the Chinese. Can you put the genie back in the bottle? Turn back the hands of time and return to the 20th century and an age of carrier pigeons and printing presses? No. Today information flies through the air from one end of the world to another almost instantly.
End censorship in Israel NOW!
After reading this, Israelis might want to decide whether they’d prefer to be more like the country whose leader is quoted here or like the U.S. or UK:
“Any direct or indirect interference in our internal affairs — any form of pressure on Russia…is unacceptable…We need to act as resolutely as possible…to block attempts by radical groups to use information technologies, Internet resources and social networking Web sites for their propaganda.
Citizens’ right to freedom of speech is unshakable and inviolable — however, no one has the right to sow hatred, to stir up society and the country, and put under threat the life, welfare and peace of millions of our citizens.”
On a related note, it’s no accident that just as I began reporting about Ben Zygier Facebook reported to me that a hacker in Tel Aviv had hacked my password. Luckily Facebook suspended access to the account. It doesn’t matter whether the hacker was a wannabe super patriot or an official representative of the security apparatus. What does matter is the attempt by the national security state to sabotage us and silence us. This cyber-warfare follows similar attempts to hack my Paypal account and a successful hack of my blog in September by Semion Kras.