Inside The Media Blackout Scandal in The Middle East's Only Democracy
Imagine that the US military ordered the arrest of the person who leaked the now-notorious video depicting US soldiers mowing down two Reuters journalists and a crowd of innocent Iraqis. Then imagine that a court then imposed a gag order forbidding all American reporters and bloggers from even mentioning the arrest of the leaker. What would the media blackout say about the state of American democracy?
Of course this hypothetical scenario would be unthinkable in a country like the US, which boasts a grand tradition of whisteblowing, and which has shield laws in 36 states. The reason I raised it was to dramatize the outrageous nature of a gag order in Israel that has forbidden journalists and bloggers from reporting on the so-called Anat Kam affair. Who is Kam and why is speaking her name a crime in the Israeli media?
To make a long story shorter, Kam is a 23-year-old Israeli journalist who allegedly procured confidential documents while she worked in an Israeli Army general's office during her mandatory military service. The documents revealed that in 2007, Israeli Army forces assassinated a Palestinian Islamic Jihad member in direct contravention of a Supreme Court order that banned the killing of wanted militants if there was a reasonable chance to arrest them first. Two top Israeli military officials, former Central Command Chief Major General Yair Naveh, Operations Directorate Head Major General Tal Russo, and Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who directed the assault on Gaza in 2008 and 09, are said to have been incriminated in the documents.
Kam is believed to have photocopied the documents and passed them on to Uri Blau, a top national security reporter for the Israeli daily, Haaretz (Haaretz's editor in chief has called any link between Kam and Blau "absurd," however). Blau proceeded to publish an article detailing the contents of the documents, provoking the ire of the Israeli military, which since 1988 has demanded that journalists submit all "material relevant to the security of the state" to the military censor for review, and which compels all journalists seeking an official Israeli press card (GPO card) to sign on to the censorship policy. By all accounts, Blau submitted his article for review to the censor and was cleared for publication.
Kam was detained last December and placed under house arrest. However, news of her arrest only began to seep out into the news in March. Kam now awaits trial for treason and espionage, charges that could land her in prison for as long as 14 years.
Meanwhile, Blau is hiding out in London. According to multiple sources, Blau is terrified to return to Israel. His hard-hitting reports on Israeli Army abuses in the occupied West Bank have made him the bane of the military establishment. "At least ten journalists inside Israel have told me [Blau] is the real target," a reporter working in Israel and Palestine told me. "And everyone is saying they're simply prosecuting Kam to make an example out of her."
Seeking to suppress discussion of the scandal, Israel's internal security service, Shin Bet, secured a gag order on the media from an apparent rubber stamp judge who had spent almost her entire career in military courts. The order, issued in January, forbade journalists and bloggers in Israel not only from reporting on the details of Kam's prosecution, but from even acknowledging that she had been detained. A reporter I spoke to was publishing stories on the scandal under an anonymous byline. The New York Times has done the same, meaning even Ethan Bronner might be afraid of the Shin Bet.
The gag order was leaked tonight on the blog of Richard Silverstein. According to Israel's Channel 10, its contents had been kept from secret at the personal insistence of Shin Bet Director Yuval Diskin -- even the Speaker of the Knesset was not allowed to see it.
A friend has helped me translate the salient portions:
The order identifies Superintendent Saar Shapira as the police official who went to court to request it; the plan to arrest Kam is referred to as "Operation Double-Overtake." The most notable piece of information is that Israel's National and International Serious Crimes Unit spearheaded the investigation into Kam's conduct. The involvement of this unit, which in the past has gone after Israeli journalists for traveling to designated enemy nations like Syria, and therefore seems primarily concerned with crimes committed abroad, raises the question of whether Kam leaked documents to reporters besides Blau who work for international papers.
While American bloggers like Richard Silverstein have been reporting on the Kam affair for weeks, some Israeli bloggers have taken down their posts, fearing that they could harm Kam's defense -- and possibly place themselves in danger -- by provoking the Shin Bet and reactionary political elements. Kam's defense team has allegedly urged bloggers to take posts down in hopes of lessening her sentence. The fact that the contents of the gag order were not shown to anyone until tonight only added to the climate of confusion and fear.
There are exceptions to the blackout, however. The Israeli reporter Mya Guarneri has written about the Kam affair at The National, a foreign paper. And the scandal has received in-depth treatment from the Palestinian news service, Ma'an News, which recently lost a top editor, Jared Malsin (an American graduate of Yale University), when Israeli security services ordered his deportation on the grounds that he had published damaging reports about Israeli military conduct in the Occupied Territories. Besides a few vigilant Israeli bloggers, a Facebook page devoted to Kam's case is hosting what blogger Didi Remez calls "a de facto civil disobedience campaign."
Two major papers in Israel have tried to find their way around the gag order. Yedioth Ahronoth satirized the media blackout (I'm not sure if the satire was intentional), submitting Judith Miller's report about Kam to the military censor, then publishing a redacted version of the article (see it here). And Haaretz has run an interview with a former Supreme Court Justice, Dalia Dorner, who mocks the order as pointless in the age of the internet. "If the entire world knows about [the Kam affair]," Dorner said, "issuing a gag order is baseless." However, the article does not mention Kam directly or describe the details of her case.
While the media blackout casts the darkest shadow over Israel's already withered democratic institutions, the fact that Kam is being charged with treason is nearly as disturbing. While she may be guilty of leaking confidential documents, she is only accused of malfeasance for exposing a much greater crime, an illegal assassination that appeared to have been authorized at the highest levels of the IDF general command. She is a whisteblower in the tradition of Mark Felt and Daniel Ellsberg. In Netanyahu's Israel, however, she is being treated as an enemy of the state.
If reporters can be prosecuted or intimidated by the state for exposing acts that the Israeli Supreme Court has declared illegal, then the court holds nothing more than symbolic authority. By voiding the rulings of the court without a second thought, Israel's military-intelligence apparatus has demonstrated the preeminence of its power. At the same time, its reliance on gag orders has revealed a growing sense of desperation. What else is the IDF hiding?