Wednesday, July 19, 2006

wars censors freedom

About half a year ago, when the rate of Qassams flying daily into the western Negev from Gaza picked up at an alarming speed, the IDF censor sat down and printed us up a new list of dos and don't. Do: Report Qassam. Don't: Report where Qassam lands. Everything we write is supposed to go through the censor, and for good reason - militants are able to look at a news web site and use the information to correct their errors.

I see the logic in this kind of censorship and fear the consequences of not following it - not as a journalist who could be tried, but as a civilian in a country at war. I don't want Hezbollah or Hamas learning from my writing how to better aim their rockets.

The counter issue of maintaining civil rights in times of crisis, however, raises the ever-present question: does a military censorship limit the newspaper's freedom of the press and citizens' right to freedom of information? On a practical level, it is a dichotomy never to be resolved. Security trumps freedom. With our future a gloomy trend of terror and security, it is necessary to create a space where personal freedom, our raison d'etre, is our reality. The tricky part is that news itself - any writing or expression for that matter - is a creator of reality.

What kind of reality do we want to create?

The Associated Press writes,

Here's news you may never hear about Israel's war against Hezbollah: a missile falls into the sea, a strategic military installation is hit, a Cabinet minister plans to visit the front lines.

All such topics are subject to review by Israel's chief military censor who has, in her own words, "extraordinary power" - to shut down papers, block information and throw journalists in jail.

"I can, for example, publish an order that no material can be published. I can close a newspaper or shut down a station. I can do almost anything, and I can put people in jail," Col. Sima Vaknin said Wednesday.

Israel believes that as a small country in a near constant state of conflict, having a say over what information gets out to the world is vital to its security. Critics say the policy is a slippery slope not fit for a democracy.

The range of issues subject to censorship are all related to the same simple goal: Israel's desire to prevent Hezbollah from using the media to help it better aim the rockets it is firing into Israel.

Abiding by the rules of the censor is a condition for receiving permission to operate as a media organization in Israel.

The conditions include; no real-time reports giving the exact locations of missile hits; no reports of missile hits on army bases, strategic targets, or misses into the sea; and no reports telling when citizens are allowed to leave their bunkers for supplies. Reporters are also not permitted to give details about senior Israeli officials going to the north of the country, where the rockets are falling, until the officials are gone, nor are they allowed to report places where there aren't enough shelters or where public defense is weak.

So far in this conflict, about one rocket in 100 fired by Hezbollah has killed an Israeli. The rest usually explode in empty fields, tear concrete from abandoned streets or plunk into the sea. Fired blind, Hezbollah's thousands of mostly short-range, inaccurate munitions simply pose a random peril to Israeli citizens.

For obvious reasons, Israel would like to keep it that way. Live media feedback, the censor says, changes everything.

Report immediately that a missile splashed into the Mediterranean, for example, and any guerrilla with an Internet connection knows to aim left.

Report that an oil refinery in Haifa went up in flames, and he'll surely celebrate and reload. Report that a senior official is going up north, and it will be raining rockets there in no time.

So the logic of censorship goes.

But in an era when mobile phones have cameras and the terrorists' weapons include laptops and video crews, even the chief censor acknowledges that a complete blockade of news is in many cases not possible.

"Not in 2006," she says.

Restrictions on the media are not unique to Israel. The United States military for example, makes journalists embedded with troops in Iraq sign a document agreeing not to report specifics of troop movements and attacks in real time, for reasons similar to Israel's.

Critics say the censorship system is worse than ineffective - it's undemocratic, often counterproductive and a violation of freedom of speech.

"People are entitled to get as much information as they can about what's happening in a conflict," says Rohan Jahasekera, associate editor of the London-based magazine, the Index of Censorship.

"There's a reasonable expectation and a right of people to get full information about the conduct of a war." he says. Israel's censorship rules were not unusual, he adds, but "it's unusual in that they're enforced."

Jahasekera also refuted arguments that reporting missile landings helped Hezbollah, since the rockets the Islamic militants use are "spectacularly inaccurate."

Bob Steele, Nelson Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute, a media studies organization, says editors should bear the responsibility for decisions to publish or not.

"These are decisions that the news organizations and journalists should make - with the input of government and military officials," he says. "They should not be decisions that are made by default."

"We should always push back on censorship," Steele adds, even if it's a losing fight.


ucurum said...

a quotation from the last post

"So far in this conflict, about one rocket in 100 fired by Hezbollah has killed an Israeli. The rest usually explode in empty fields, tear concrete from abandoned streets or plunk into the sea. Fired blind, Hezbollah's thousands of mostly short-range, inaccurate munitions simply pose a random peril to Israeli citizens."
Israeli air force having % 100 accurate when hitting the palestinian civilians and doesnt matter whenever or whereever they hit. hitting wihtout a reason during a meeting or while innocent people were near the see side. is that fair? or what is fair on that war?

Anonymous said...

Ali, it's clara - is this you?? I hope it is - randomly googled you because I was worried (given current events). I would love to get in touch. I have a temporary email at - should be checking it for a week or so. Hope to talk to you!