The IDF military censor, Brig. Gen. Sima Vaknin-Gil [later referred to as VG], recently completed a decade of service in the job and announced her retirement. 7th Eye, the journal of the Israeli Democracy Institute, published this extensive interview with her. Because it both identifies the processes by which the censor operates, its relations with the Israeli media, and exposes her own conceptions of censorship in an ostensibly democratic state, it’s an important document.
In coordination with this interview, I’ve published an overview of Israeli censorship and the latest developments in the rise of the Censor State at MintPress.
Below, the interviewers questions are italicized. Vaknin-Gil’s responses are unitalicized:
…Though it still physically shreds its work-product the old-fashioned way…in the past several years, as she [VG] attests, the censor’s office has had a comprehensive technological upgrade, which includes the integration of monitoring tools whose function cannot be expanded upon here.
When the censor staff must examine the content of long news stories or books, the routine still involves printing out the materials [to be reviewed], reading them in on paper, and marking up the portions which require change or erasure. After the censorship process is completed, soldiers of the unit shred the paper and throw it into the recycling.
Vaknin-Gil is ending a decade in the job. Journalists and editors who work with her mostly characterize her as a “liberal censor,” who attaches great importance to the need to protect freedom of speech. As she reviews [her tenure] in the interview with her, in the years when she headed this body shrouded in secrecy, she was careful, and limited the full use of her censorship powers. She redefined the limits of debate, and for all intents and purposes softened the military oversight [of media discourse]. The backlash which her approach caused among representatives of the establishment was exemplified several days after the conversation with her, in the aftermath of the decision to permit Channel 2 to air the statements Ehud Barak said about the cabinet deliberation which preceded a planned Israeli operation to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Last month, Vaknin Gil published a comprehensive article in which she summarized the rationale under which she led the organization. She suggested a newer and more open model than that which preceded her. The model–currently in use by the censor, which obligates the media to transmit materials for prior approval which cover tens of pre-defined topics–is not appropriate for democratic nations, and is based on regulations she defines as “draconian.” Therefore, she suggests replacing it with a more open form of oversight.
“One of the things you write in the article is that the model of prior restraint could become a system which the public can’t live with. Which social or technological advances need to happen in order for this to be realized?”
“It’s already happening, you don’t have to wait,” Vaknin-Gil replies. “Every model employing restraint is quite problematic for this new era. That article [which VG wrote] was written after a decade of activity during which I saw how things were changing at a very fast rate. The public today lives and acts through the internet, and by the schedule of the internet. The desire to be first and control the narrative is the most central element. When I receive a report from a mainstream website and it takes me two minutes to check it–those two minutes, in terms of the internet, are sometimes a matter of life or death. Because, in that amount of time someone else could publish the information.
“The strategic conception on which the article is based, which was presented to the defense minister, is to say: let’s anticipate what’s to come. But everything I identity as futuristic, we already have today.
“I understand that working with us [the censor] is a form of damage [to the media]. As far as we can anticipate the world of the internet, and as far as news will become more like this and less like it was once–TV and the print newspapers–more and more outlets and journalists will face greater difficulties working with us [unless we anticipate change].”
“You describe a situation in which technology turns the law bit by bit into a dead letter.”
Right. I personally think that what I’m describing will get even worse somewhere between next month and the coming decade. I don’t know exactly when.
“You mention something else in the article which is the model of oversight of the U.S., which is different from the Israeli model, in that reviewing material happens in retrospect, after publication, except in time of war.”
That’s the model I suggested strengthening: to cancel censorship under the current system and to build a different system. To limit the process of restraint and move to the mode of advising. To decrease the amount classified as secret. To write legislation which has broader range–but in emergency conditions going back to a situation of full restraint, like today. The way we do things today is especially Israeli–to a surprising extent the military makes such decisions, advancing freedom of speech, call it what you will–that’s OK. But afterward you go to the U.S. and you are the Israeli military censor. They simply don’t understand this [method].
Censorship of the sort that applies to newspapers and TV can’t survive in this new world. Therefore we must find a different method. For me, this comes from a fundamental place and from my perspective on censorship in a democracy.
By the way, I can tell you that security officials in the State of Israel are prone to the idea that censorship and democracy don’t go hand in hand, even more so censors wearing a uniform. There is widespread agreement that we must move the burden from the censor to those who control information [the media]. And that the responsibility should be upon them. If they make an error, they should pay the price.
One of Vaknin-Gil’s predecessor, Rachel Dolev, stopped censoring soldiers’ letters and shut down the office which eavesdropped on international calls made inside Israel.
“Just so we aren’t confused, I am the chief censor, whose job is to protect the security of the State. Any place where the security of the State might be harmed–I protected it. What is “security of the State?” What are the criteria used to protect it? On this we may have differing interpretations.”
“How is the censorship [unit] that you leave different from what you found ten years ago [when you began]?”
“It’s almost unrecognizable. It’s different in so many ways that it’s difficult for me even to begin to describe. We’ve several times over changed our internal work methods with a view to how we interact with new media. We moved from a unit based in the 70s to one that is super-automated.
“We underwent four processes of organizational change. And the motto for each one was to take the censor’s office another step forward and bring it into the new millennium: physical infrastructure, computer infrastructure, legal infrastructure and strengthening the work perspective to one more suited to our era. We have systems to monitor TV, radio and internet which are, to my mind, the best that exist. These days we are about to introduce an added system which will be deal with another internet niche.”
“I’d prefer not to say. We find ourselves today in a place where there isn’t any piece of meaningful security information on the internet, or anywhere, about which the censor isn’t aware–before its publication, through the use of prior restraint; or immediately thereafter, through the use of real-time tracking. I’m leaving the censor’s office when it’s blossoming–whether due to the quality-individuals drafted into its service, or because of the computer infrastructure we’ve developed, a portion of which was developed by units within the IDF and the security apparatus.
We’re aided quite a bit by means of the judicial decisions we’ve won, laws which have been passed, legal opinions crafted for us. I have here people who were censors in 1973 and do this job in 2015–this isn’t a simple thing. They went through this transformation together with the entire unit: from the pre-computer era to the computer era, from the “closed” era of the security apparatus to the open era of the security apparatus.”
There is a perspective which says that in the last few years managing editors try not to bring cases to the Supreme Court, for fear that the Schnitzer decision [which placed restraints on what information the censor could restrict] will be overturned. Are you in accord with this?”
“No and the reason is simple: the Schnitzer decision, we know it in our context. But the “review with near certainty [that national security will be harmed]” which it inscribed is a criteria recognized in many decisions, and balanced in many different ways. And I have trouble seeing a Court which would rule differently in the matter of balancing freedom of speech.
“If so, could there be another reason for this fear [of editors bringing decisions to the Court]? Why do you think that in recent years there have been so few appeals to the Court on matters of censorship?”
“During my whole tenure, there were only three Supreme Court decisions, two of which I can’t speak about. Only one of them dealt with the media. It’s possible to claim that this is because they’re afraid of a reversal. But I suggest a different reason: I think we succeeded in reaching a situation in which the media doesn’t need to take us to the Supreme Court because we’re not ‘going crazy.’ We don’t take our power to the extreme. We’ve always found a happy medium. Always been able to maintain a bridge. At this, we are experts.
“There were a few cases in which journalists could have gone to the Supreme Court, but decided against it because the editors wouldn’t support them. There were other times when people thought they might not win in court, because the security apparatus always succeeds in persuading the judges at the end of the day. I can’t say this isn’t true. I only know what’s the bottom line: if the censor did go crazy, you would find us before the Court as happened in the past. And you would find us before the editors’ committee as happened in the past. But on the other hand, I could ask myself: “One moment, maybe I’ve been too good to you [the media].”
“That’s surely what the security apparatus says.”
“The security apparatus thinks that it deserves absolute protection. Once we asked ourselves: ‘how do we know that we’re doing all right?’ We had a rather silly, but correct method of determining this: if at the end everyone is mad at you part of the time, sometimes I’m here [on one side] and sometimes I’m there–finally everything is pretty well-balanced.”
“So you’re saying that the perspective of the security apparatus isn’t that you’re liberal towards the media?”
“That you’ll have to ask them. I can’t say there isn’t some officer who thinks that I shouldn’t have permitted discussion of something. According to my view, I as censor have to give a place of honor to freedom of speech and the right of the public to know. Not everyone agrees with this perspective, but I think differently. I claim that the role of censor is to determine how to balance these two needs. The censor asks: in a particular circumstance is the harm done to freedom of speech commensurate with the need to protect security [of the State]; or the extent to which I can keep the need to maintain security to a minimum in order to permit the maximum freedom of speech–or the reverse.
“But don’t be confused: I am an IDF officer. I am the chief censor whose job is to protect the security of the State. In every circumstance in which I thought that the security of the State might be harmed–I protected it. I fought to protect it.
Now, what is the “security of the State?” What’s the criteria for its protection? On this we may have different interpretations. There may be a chief of staff or Mossad chief who doesn’t think as I do–but this is legitimate. I have more than a few hard discussions with the security apparatus, just as I have on the other side with the media. By the way, there’s a terrific way to determine if you’re on the wrong track: the security apparatus can simply fire you.”
According to the outgoing censor, there is one area in which it ignores considerations of freedom of speech–emergency conditions [wartime].
“During emergencies, there is a jump of 30% in censored material. In these circumstances, what concerns the censor most is that soldiers return home safely. The war’s over? We go back to the way it was.”
According to her, 85% of what’s presented to the censor on a daily basis is approved for publication with any involvement in its content.
Even today, says Vaknin-Gil, the media refuses to bring to the censor a not insignificant amount of material which it’s obligated to transmit for review before publication. She says only 70% of what should be presented prior to publication is indeed transmitted. Almost all the information that isn’t passed to the censor beforehand doesn’t contain matters that are prohibited from publication.
“Editors recognize the boundaries and everything that gets close to the edge they send to us [for review]. What don’t they send us? The things with which we would have no problem.”
One of Vaknin-Gil’s proposals which, according to her, will be implemented in the future, is a decrease in the list of subjects which require prior submission to the military censor. Instead of 36 subjects, there will be only 8. The subjects which must be submitted are formulated in an agreement between the censor and the editors committee, a historic body whose status has been in continual decline since the 1990s, and which today no longer exists. The appeals body for this system, the Committee of Three has convened, according to Vaknin-Gil less than ten times in the last decade.
“Because the agreement was formulated with the editors committee, and it no longer exists, the agreement is no longer in effect.”
“Despite the fact that the committee no longer exists the agreement remains. How do you explain this?”
“It remains because all of us remain under the same system and we understand that this is the way it works. We tried to find a different partner who would sign an agreement with us; the journalists council. By the way we wanted to introduce changes to bring it up to date with current environment, to deal with the Internet.”
“And it did not succeed?”
“It didn’t succeed. And because no one was willing to sign a new agreement, we were forced to find a different solution and the solution was this: to work unilaterally. The content would be identical: the same agreement, the same logic, same spirit, same processes of remediation. But now the defense ministry acts unilaterally in relation to the media.”
“How could you propose such a thing to the media when the media was not a partner in the agreement?
“It’s very simple. Even today you aren’t a partner in the agreement. You never once signed this agreement, right? Yet you still work under the principles outlined in it. This agreement falls automatically on everyone…”
“You propose reducing the number of subjects which obligate prior submission to the censor. Why [do this] now? Why not, let’s say, five years ago?”
During my second year, I met with the editors and they said to me:
“Listen, this isn’t bothering anyone. We prefer the list include as many as subjects as possible. Because the staff changes so frequently–it’s preferable that they not be confused.”
Every two years I reviewed the list anew. By the way–this is part of the job description of the censor–and after the second time with the editors they told me the same thing. So we left things as is. We, from our perspective, determined from time to time subjects which we removed or which we added.”
“Do you think that writing that Israel has nuclear weapons without adding “according to foreign sources” harms with near-certainty the security of the State?”
“As to the nuclear issues, with your permission, I don’t want to enter into it. I will only say one thing: the policy of opacity is the policy of the State of Israel. What the censor does is not to determine the policy or change it, but to interpret this policy on behalf of the media. If I have a discussion about the content of the policy–it’s done with the defense ministry and not journalists as much as they may be respected.”
“In the report we published about your article, several journalists who’ve been in regular contact took care to praise your work. But they also noted that in the current political climate, turning the censor into a civilian responsibility would likely lead to politicization; and that the legislation is a dangerous process which is impossible to know where it may end.”
“I can’t reject what they say. There is a certain logic to it. I will only say what bothers me, and after that we can add analysis: these statements which have been made throughout the existence of the censor, are what has determined how the censor works. It’s OK for everyone [editors] to be on good terms with the censor, but these same individuals when they meet colleagues who come here from abroad in order to examine the level of freedom of speech in Israel, whine the censor. I’m only saying: “take the cobwebs from your eyes.”
“Despite this, they’re right. At first glance, if you are a civilian body situated in the ministry of justice, defense or in the national security council, you are perceived as being less clean than someone in the military. Why? Because the army itself has a reputation for professionalism and “clean hands,” and for being insulated from politicization. I’ll tell you how I came to my view about making the censor a civilian entity.
“I have a great deal of trouble with the fact that what I do, I do in a uniform. It reminds me of regimes with which I don’t want to be compared. When I thought about a civilian authority, my intent was not for them to appoint a soccer player, but rather someone who comes from the security sphere–a person formerly of the Mossad, Shabak or army, or a jurist with a security background.
“Now, after saying this, let’s talk about the law. It’s true–when you go to the Knesset with legislation you know how it will start, but you don’t know how it will come out [in the end]…Pay attention to what I’m proposing: it’s true that I proposed a law, but along with the law there are three things cancelled which are far more draconian: Paragraph 113 of criminal code, which deals with spying; Paragraph 117 dealing with the transmission of information from a public worker, and the emergency regulations concerning security.
Regarding the regulations, don’t make the mistake of thinking that I won’t enforce them: the censor has enormous power in her hands. What would happen if tomorrow I decide to go wild?”
“Since you do not use these means, from the point of view of journalists it’s more convenient to rely on gentlemen’s agreements and handshakes [than explicit documents].”
“It’s clear to me that it is convenient for you. It’s quite convenient for you that I do your work for you. Because what happens? Restraint is the most difficult model, right? It leads to a freezing effect as they say in academia, right? That’s ridiculous. The censor knows all the secrets. Therefore, when you present me reports, I’m not obligated to disqualify the entire thing. I disqualify only the specific portion which I know is problematic. In an absurd sense, the Israeli model of restraint upholds freedom of expression better than any place else [in the world].”
“What you’re now saying, that censorship in its current format does not lead to a chilling effect on the will of journalists to publish information, contradicts somewhat what you said earlier about editors which aid censorship and its principles through self-censorship. That’s proof of the fact that self-censorship exists.”
“It doesn’t contradict that. It complements it. If an editor gets an amazing scoop, what do you think? That he won’t present it to me? Certainly, he will. And he’ll quarrel with me about publishing it. Under a different model, in which an editor makes a decision and doesn’t present the story for prior approval, he may fear to take such a dangerous step because he doesn’t know where the line is. Now, he has someone whose sole job is to define: “the line is here.” So for all these reasons, it’s convenient for journalists that the censor remain.
“Now, I have no problem with that. It’s OK. I’d just like to ask a simple question: if it’s so convenient for everyone, come let’s embrace it. Just stop whining about it abroad.”
“If we understand you correctly, your vision concerning the new [civilian] model has not been accepted [by the defense ministry].”
“First of all, analysis of the problem was accepted. There’s general agreement that what I proposed it right. It’s correct that the defense minister [Bogie Yaalon] said that he accepts this, but that he doesn’t want to do it in the radical way I proposed. He proposes that we do it in an evolutionary mode: we will take those things I identify as problematic and correct them within the current system. He said: “No, I don’t wish to change the format, don’t wish to repeal censorship based on prior restraint, doesn’t wish to cancel defense regulations, and don’t want new legislation, because I identify with the current system–and this is an important statement–as something that fits the particular culture of Israel.”
“This strange agreement under which we live wouldn’t work if you and I didn’t come from the same place, in which you wish to do your job but don’t wish to harm security–and I must do my job, but don’t wish to harm freedom of speech. At the moment we understand that we both have identical interests, we can work under such an agreement. But this is something that only fits Israel’s culture. It would never work in the U.S. or in Britain.”
Censors in Pajamas
Military censorship, says VG, is a small unit in IDF terms. It’s composed of 40 staff dealing with actual censorship, most of whom are civilian workers in the IDF, and 20 others dealing with more comprehensive matters.
When she’s asked what type of person presents an application to work for military censorship, she explains that her staff reflects “the full beautiful range of people coming from almost every field [in Israel],” although they generally have a legal or security background. Even journalists have passed through the department. For example, the managing editor of Yisrael HaYom, Amos Regev, according to VG, was a censor in the past.
“It’s very important to me that the people here are quality individuals, and that the censor is their first home–not the second. We call them “pajamas censors” because even when you’re at home, after you completed your shift, you watch the news or read the paper–you think censorship. Now, just before you came, I had a conversation with my censor who’s abroad, and who saw a news item and asked if that is something that passed by us. This is a way of life, it’s something that stays with you, VG says.
“When you come here, you’re sucked into this thing called censorship. I promised [Shaul] Mofaz I would fill the job for four years and in fact I leave after a decade,” she continues. “When I interview people for censorship positions, most of the questions I ask are not what they studied or where they served in the army; but about the balances, on the essence of freedom of speech in the State of Israel; about the role, in their opinion, the security apparatus plays in a democratic state. Know that we see ourselves as protectors of the security of the State, just as we see ourselves as protectors of freedom of expression.”
The size of the unit–and the understanding she has at a time when talk of budgets cuts makes it difficult to expand the unit–is connected to the way in which the departing censor chooses to draw anew the boundaries of the field.
“Due to the understanding that the IDF is in a situation in which it always has to examine where it’s putting every shekel, and through the understanding that the censor has to make do with what it has, we went in the direction of extracting the most from what we currently have, a re-definition of the internal objectives and focusing on protecting secrets that are absolutely essential. Not everything is secret. And not every secret is a security secret. We must focus on what’s important, she says.
“The censor monitors all the tweets of anyone who defines himself as a journalist, just as we monitor blogs, Facebook pages and forums. I understand, for example, that the censor cannot control the internet through [prior] restraint. If the censor asks every journalist who opens a Twitter account to present everything beforehand, we will stop everything for them.
“One of the changes we instituted was the decision that we will simply monitor them. The censor follows the tweets of everyone who defines himself as a journalist just as we monitor blogs, Facebook pages and forums. But there are a few individuals who even if they wished to work with the censor, they couldn’t. Some, because they don’t know me. To move from working with editors to working with every citizen who starts a blog or Facebook page, this isn’t a simple thing.
I follow every person or body whose internet mission might make them likely to publish security material. WhatsApp I place on the side–this was never under the authority of the censor and never will be. With Facebook and Twitter, as companies, we don’t have relations. We turn directly to the users–at the moment when you cross a certain line, we identify you, make contact with you, and explain censorship to you and learn how to work with you.”
“And if he opened a fictitious account?”
“Then we have a problem. During Protective Edge we found many Facebook pages where we couldn’t identify who was behind them. They exposed information about the [IDF] casualties and on [military] units which saw action. One of the things we do in such circumstances is to “obscure.” We obscured in order to find out what was going on there.
What do you mean by “to obscure?”
“To obscure” means not to permit the media to publish something despite the fact that everyone knows it. In any event, what is published on social media sites generally is the outer flap of the envelope of censorship and not at the heart of the matter. Whoever really knows secrets doesn’t run to publish them on Facebook. Those who open Facebook pages write about things which are, charitably, routine security matters. The worst thing I remember was during a terror attack when someone exposed details that were supposed to be secret about a vehicle leaving the scene, information the Shabak sought to obscure.
“Since in the case of the internet most of our activity turns out to involve monitoring publication after the fact. At the moment I understood that if I perform such actions I must do them on a very broad scale, and with limited manpower, I developed a concept I call “proxy:” people who aren’t authorized to be censors, who aren’t official, but who are intermediaries for me to the site distributing the information.”
“Are they the ones who are the intermediaries for the censor on the internet, which you mentioned in your article?”
“Those are the intermediaries. One of them was Rabbi Yeshaya Rotter. Rotter, even if he very much wanted to work with the censor under the rubric of prior restraint, he couldn’t because his forum was one in which anyone could write whatever he wanted. Rabbi Rotter came here, understood what was bothering us. What happened was that he took down problematic posts even before we had to get involved. That is, he turned into a sort of censor after the fact.”
“And this was effective?”
“What is ‘effective?’ It stopped these conversations very quickly.”
“According to foreign sources”
Most Israelis aren’t aware of how widely relations between the military censor and the media impact the boundaries of debate and the mix of factual information to which the Israeli public is privilege. One of the reasons for this is the clear directive prohibiting journalists from leaving any sign of involvement of the censor in newspaper reports; or characterizing a military source who directed them to erase or change any detail of information.
Journalists for whom a line of copy has been rejected [by the censor] simply delete it. And don’t, for example, write “we are prohibited from writing how many tanks there are on the Golan right now.” We think it’s appropriate the journalists be transparent with their readers about the existence of such involvement, whether it’s right or wrong. Why not advance such a transparent approach that acknowledges the involvement of the censor in publication?
“First of all, it’s prohibited by law.”
“What’s the logic behind the law?”
“The logic says that you will not tell where there was involvement of the censor in deleting information.”
“That’s not the logic, it’s the law itself.”
“That is the logic. Because you don’t want to let the other side know that something is very important. The entire idea is to not show the involvement of the censor.
“That is, if the other side would know that this journalist knows how many tanks are on the Golan, it would be able to spy on the journalist and get the information [that way]?”
“No. There may be certain instances where if you document the involvement of the censor you may expose details about certain intelligence matters. For example, if there is a certain incident for which the State of Israel has not taken responsibility, you cannot report about it “according to foreign sources” and then say: “I can’t expand on this because the censor prohibits it.” The fact that the censor prohibits publication authenticates that the State of Israel stands behind the event.”
“These are very limited situations. The censor can oversee and direct how its involvement is characterized.”
“Have you ever seen Or Heller tell his Channel 10 viewers “
‘I cannot give details because the censor won’t permit it?’ I want you to read a newspaper, watch the news and listen to radio without knowing that beforehand Razi took direction [from the censor], Ilana went over [the material on] Uvdah with me, and Ron Ben Yishai sent me the report before publication.”
“Or that a representative of the censor sits in the offices of the news channel?”
“Yes, when you watch the 8 o’clock TV news, the censor’s already been there since 6 and managed to go through the whole [news] line-up. OK? We don’t want you [the viewer] to know that.
“Since the 1990s the security discourse has become very critical, open and even harsh towards the security apparatus–and rightly so. And it’s a good thing.
One of the tools you mention in the article is ‘restraining and limiting publication in order to reduce the media ‘seal of approval’ so that the enemy will not find it believable.’ How do you make information already published appear less credible?”
“Let’s assume the censor identifies something publishing on the internet at some untrustworthy site or even at a serious one. Sometimes I will make a decision not to touch it, because the very fact of my doing so would give it a “media seal of approval.” We’ve developed an approach which says: “The information is out there, but we don’t restrict it.” You simply can’t prevent everything, but what can you do? To reduce the media seal of approval.
“There are today tools whose purpose is to identify sudden changes in reports published on the web. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are those who employ this specially in order to find places where the censor has intervened. It’s not just Richard Silverstein who, once in a while, says: “Pay attention, such and such was published and taken down suddenly–sure this is the hand of the censor.” By the way, in 98% of the cases if not all, this isn’t due to censorship. But it makes no difference.
Sometimes we won’t permit follow-up discussion [of a subject], sometimes we won’t permit expansion [of a story]. Sometimes we’ll request closing Talkbacks [reader comments].”
“You contact the editor and tell him to close the Talkbacks for a story?”
“If necessary, we do this. We did so once, in an unusual circumstance–not because of what was published in the report–but because I feared that someone might understand what was published in a different way and publish it in the Talkbacks. Another option is not to permit developing discussion [of a story]. Another option is not to attribute a great deal of credibility [to a story].
“This week, for example, a very reliable media outlet came to me saying that a marginal site in some Arab country had information–and we know it’s true. It’s already published there and no one knows what’s there. I wouldn’t approve publication of this despite the fact that it appears somewhere on the web.”
“Not even ‘according to foreign sources?”
“Not even ‘according to foreign sources.'”
“We thought that “according to foreign sources” would pull the rug out from under the credibility accorded the information.
It’s a type of double game [“duplicity”] which the media plays. Sometimes I don’t demand that they say “according to foreign sources,” but the media say this anyway–it’s Pavlovian.”
Balances and Punishments
One of the issues with which VG is engaged is the definition of “security secret.” According to her, she’s considering writing a doctoral thesis researching this subject, using her professional experience and the research behind the article she published.
Security for some time has not been a sacred cow in Israel. We know this for sure. The media too is not the same as it was in the past, when it saw itself as part of the Zionist discourse, meant to aid the government and the establishment to educate the generation, she says, though she makes clear that from the censor’s viewpoint, Israeli news reporting shows great responsibility.
“In the course of your tenure, has anything been published which with ‘near certainty’ truly damaged the security of the State?”
“It’s happened. As evidence, there have been at least two or three official inquiries, one Supreme Court decision filed against me. We filed two complaints, and in two instances I submitted a request with the attorney general to open an investigation.”
“What can you tell us about these cases?”
“About the complaints I can’t talk. The story concerned Gilad Shalit, and one of the reports really halted the negotiations for some time.
“Regarding investigations, one of the cases concerned the story of the Iran-Israeli oil pipeline [published by Haaretz]. I think these reports [by Aluf Benn] were damaging [to national security].”
“What Aluf Benn published in Haaretz about the judicial mediation between Israel and Iran?”
“Yes. I submitted a request to open an investigation. Not in order to identify the leaker, that didn’t interest me–but an investigation of the damage to the security of the State.”
An investigation whose purpose was to bring a journalist to justice for damaging the security of the State?”
“To bring the newspaper to justice. Yes, absolutely.”
“You claim that this isn’t because of the potential for damage, but that it really did actual damage to the security of the State?”
“And that’s what you’d have to prove.”
“Correct, and I certainly can do so. According to the government regulation, the entire story about the pipeline is secret, except what the censor approves. Now, we are approving publication of almost everything about it, so that people won’t become confused. They say there’s no debate about the pipeline, but there is a full debate about it. I don’t deal with mortgages, nor do I deal with battles with city government, nor with the environment. Someone even made the stupid claim that the censor told the Controller not to publish anything about this. It’s stupid. Anyone who knows the law in the State of Israel knows that the Controller is above the censor and that he can render decisions different from the censor.”
“What’s the second case?”
“The second case which damaged the security of the State is the material leaked during Protective Edge about the number of dead there would be as soon as we decided to enter Gaza. Udi Segal’s report. He said this on air and it wasn’t presented to the censor.”
“Even in this case you claim real damage was caused to the security of the State and you think you can succeed in proving before the Supreme Court that damage was caused?”
“Now let’s speak for a moment about the process of filing a complaint. How does this happen?
“The censor files a complaint with the Editor’s Committee after publication of a report not brought before the censor, or after a directive wasn’t carried out. And I must prove [security damage] with near certainty.”
“What sanction can be levied by the Committee?”
“One of the problems is that the fact that the Committee hasn’t been active is that sanctions have no teeth. That’s why I preferred deal instead with individual editors about violators.”
“What can an editor do that the Committee cannot?”
“An editor can fire someone. Something which has occurred. If he thinks someone committed a serious enough offence or if it’s a serial offender.”
“An editor in Israeli media fired a reporter because you said so?”
“I assume he wasn’t fired only on my account. I assume there were other reasons. But yes. I certainly can’t tell you about whom I’m speaking.”
“And aside from firings?”
“The editor can take someone off the air for a certain period until he gets a grasp on himself. One of the illusions is that in the media everyone will know a certain reporter paid a price for violating censorship. When I or Ron Karnieli, my deputy, turn to editors and say to them: “Listen, reporter X is a problem for us;” or “Reporter Y committed a very serious offense”–many times the discussion between them [reporter and editor] is far harsher than anything we could get from the Committee. This is what’s important to me. What’s important is that serial offenders won’t succeed.
“What can’t be accomplished through these punishments is public impact: “Haaretz was fined 100,000 shekels;” or “Haaretz had to apologize in the main headlines about violating censorship.” This I’ve never achieved. I only use Haaretz as an example. Haaretz, I must tell you, is a newspaper for which I have great respect as an enterprise which brought advances so that things are [more] balanced. Through the years I’ve worked on all the files, the censor doesn’t hide them away, everything can be found there [in the files]; and Haaretz has always been truly the newspaper which was a champion in the struggle with the censor.”
One incident whose consequences, according to her, weren’t expected, proves the enormous power placed in the hand of the censor. It happened in the last week of the year, 2008; the first day of Operation Cast Lead. Two “Arab” reporters working for an Iranian TV channel, Khader Shahin and Mohammed Sarchan were located near the border with Gaza and reported in real-time on the movement of IDF units. Through the direct intervention of VG the two were arrested, brought to trial and convicted of negligently transmitting information to the enemy. The punishment they both received was two months in jail.
“This was my mistake,” says VG. “I didn’t know Khader or Sarchan. He’s not on my telephone speed dial like Roni [Daniel] or Yoav [Limor]. If they made a mistake I would make a call and tell them: “Roni, stop talking about this, it’s prohibited.” I tried to reach Khader in a variety of ways, but didn’t succeed. Finally, I activated the police in order to get them so that I could speak with him and explain to him that this was forbidden.
“It turned out that by making the call to the police I activated the power of the censor in an emergency. The very fact of requesting to locate him meant automatic arrest for violating Paragraph 113 of the criminal code: transmitting information during wartime.
This is a story I always tell about myself, that I didn’t understand the power of the censor. I didn’t understand that what I do can activate a power that is so serious, so draconian. Therefore I want to tell you, my friends–whoever thinks the censor has no power, he simply doesn’t understand.”
“Have you spoke to Shahin since then?”
“No, the censor hasn’t spoken to him. But I spoke to the State prosecutor. The one bringing him to justice isn’t Sima. The one bringing him to justice is the State of Israel.”
Because the far-reaching changes VG implemented in the work of the censor aren’t codified by law, one of the things happening now is that her successor, Ariela Ben Avraham, will follow a different policy.
When VG is asked to evaluate what will be the policy of the new censor, who’s already begun her work, she refrains from making definitive pronouncements. “I leave the censor unit in good hands. We’re speaking of a high quality officer who understands the world of the media and comes from the media.”
“From public affairs”
“Yes, she is an IDF deputy spokesperson. As for policy, you’ll have to ask her. I only wish to say one thing–one censor doesn’t come along and change everything. There’s a legacy for the unit. There’s a system at work. The chief censor pilots the ship for all the years he’s given the wheel to steer it.”
“You used the term ‘steering wheel'”
“I did. I took things in a certain direction. I didn’t do this arbitrarily. The direction in which I went was caused by reality, a clear look at what was happening in technology, the media, justice, and the security apparatus. Ariela will find her own way during her time at the wheel.”
“During our entire conversation and in your article and lectures you give, you describe the reality of a person at the head of an organization; and in the course of the years slowly shedding more and more of the powers written down on paper which she has in her hands. The head of an organization which purposely gives up its power. This is quite out of the ordinary in any field. Generally, people don’t do this–they do just the opposite. What’s the chance that the new censor will choose this unusual path?
“What do you mean ‘giving up powers?’ True, there are places in which I gave up something. For example, in demanding review–I could’ve demanded 100% compliance. But you have to ask yourself, according to what is most cost-effective in contrast to the threat potential: where is it most useful to invest my limited manpower and energy?
“In places where I thought I should be tough, I was tough. I should invite you here for discussions which sometimes were held with the media–shouting to the heavens [there were]. In that context, if you permit me to give ourselves a compliment, because this has been said to me by a few editors: they too believe that when we rear up [against someone] we do this with full faith that what we’re saying is true.
“At times when I thought I should be tough with the security apparatus, I did just that to the other side. The idea is to be logical. To understand where you live. To understand the proper balance between what the State defined for you as your power and reality. I think we succeeded. The proof is how many times they [the media] took us to court, and how many times the heads of Mossad, Shabak, or security director came to me and said: “You allowed an awful secret to be exposed;” or “the censor didn’t protect me.” These things never happened.
“On the other hand, there were many more such discussions with the IDF of this sort. My deputy witnessed such a conversation with an IDF general which, if he could’ve shot me through the telephone–that’s what he would’ve done. These things did happen. More than a few times I paid a heavy personal price within the security apparatus when I had to battle over something. I could tell you with a full heart that freedom of speech in the State of Israel is guarded in a fashion that is absolutely appropriate. Better than in many other countries which dignify themselves as advanced democracies. Freedom of speech is protected here not too badly. And I want to say, gently, that many of the public debates in the State of Israel were enabled by the censor.”
“There is a claim that you’ve resigned because the programs you proposed in the article aren’t being realized. Is there anything to this?”
No, no, no. If you check, you’ll see that two years ago I’d already said that after a decade it’s a good time to go. It’s true that I said that if the Minister accepted the program in full I would be very happy to be the one guiding it. But the Minister absolved me of responsibility for this when he decided that he wants to bring this about through an evolutionary process. But even if he had accepted [my program] it’s the prerogative of the Minister of Defense [to hire a new censor].”
“Where are you looking now? Any thoughts about politics?”
“No, nothing concrete. I haven’t had much time to deal with the resignation. I go into civilian life a tabula rasa.”
“That’s an answer that some people, in politics for example, would interpret as “leaving all options open.”
“I could answer, but not for quotation or attribution!”
Thanks to Ronnie Barkan for aiding in parts of the translation.