Israel Drops a Gag Order Mocked by the Internet

The difficulty of maintaining secrecy in the Internet Age was on full view in America, this week, as the U.S. military found itself forced to explain the events captured in a leaked video of an Apache gunship killing Iraqi civilians. And the Israeli military and judicial system found itself coping with a similar problem as the cloak of secrecy over potentially embarrassing operations began to fray.

For the first time since she was placed under house arrest in December, the Israeli government allowed the Israeli press to publish the name of a 23-year-old journalist, Anat Kam, who has been charged with stealing thousands of secret documents while serving in the Army and leaking evidence of an allegedly illegal assassination program that targeted Palestinian militants. An Israeli judge had previously not only ordered the Israeli press not to cover the case, but also to refrain from even mentioning that a gag order was in place.

The silence broke only last week, after Jewish bloggers and news agencies outside Israel, as well as foreign news media, began reporting on the case. The appearance of reports outside of Israel — but easily read by Israelis using the Internet — prompted a cascade of outrage and ridicule inside the Israeli press. The local media was especially miffed that while the case was generating buzz online, they were still unable even to mention Kam’s name.

Barred from informing the public directly about the case, the popular newspaper Yediot Aharonot suggested last week that readers might find it interesting to search the Internet using the keywords “Israeli journalist gag.” The left-leaning Haaretz newspaper titled one article about the yet officially unnamed Kam “the case we’re forbidden to report on.” Finally, Israel’s defense establishment bent to mounting pressure, and on Thursday asked the judiciary to partially lift the ban.

Israel’s media generally cooperates with official censorship policies on military matters, but the Kam case is unusual in that it involved a judicial gag order rather than military censorship, which is normally limited to instances involving a clear and present danger to security. The Kam case did not appear to pass such a test, according to critics. “The silence that the court has imposed on the Israeli media is ludicrous,” wrote Haaretz earlier this week. “It infringes on the right of the Israeli public to know � and it makes a mockery of Israeli democracy.”

Now that the ban has been lifted, its rationale has become more apparent. Israel’s domestic security service, the Shin Bet, accuses Kam of stealing some 2,300 documents, some of them top secret, while working in the office of the military’s head of central command during her compulsory military service. Shin Bet says it is pursuing Haaretz journalist Uri Blau, who allegedly used documents provided by Kam for a series of exposes that included an article alleging that Israel’s top general, Gabi Ashkenazi, ordered targeted killing of Palestinian militants in violation of Israeli law in 2007.

The squabble appears to be in part about whether or not Blau is still in possession of secret government documents. Haaretz claims that Blau returned all the documents to Shin Bet in September 2009 as part of an agreement whereby the government promised not to prosecute Blau or his confidential source, whom the paper has still refrained from naming. But Shin Bet claims the gag order was necessary because it believes Blau is still in possession of top military secrets that would be valuable to Israel’s enemies. Blau is believed to have fled Israel for London earlier this year.

The gag order may ironically have generated more embarrassment than the revelations about stolen documents and illegal assassinations. According to Haaretz, Blau’s articles themselves were submitted to and passed by the military censor, a sign of the openness of the government to self-criticism and the relative liberality of the censorship policy. But while Blau’s original article on Israeli assassinations received relatively little attention when it first came out, the furor over the gag order is giving it a second hearing. As for Kam, her fate is to be determined in court, where she faces still charges, including espionage, that could carry a 14-year prison sentence. But at least now that the ban has been lifted, she can tell her story in the court of public opinion

With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Tel Aviv

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