May 4, 2012
The IDF military censor will be assuming even more ominous Big Brother-like prerogatives as it begins monitoring the social media accounts of Israeli journalists and bloggers for potential violation of censorship provisions. At a conference on digital media, the censor, an IDF colonel, announced that her staff would further constrict freedom of the press and speech by assuming the mantle of social media enforcer:
Israel’s military launched a new system this week to monitor information on the Internet, the chief military censor said on Tuesday.
Col. Sima Vaknin-Gil said that the new system will monitor visual and textual information on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, on blogs and on traditional news sites.
Vaknin-Gil explained that the new system will examine information using keywords labeled in advance. The system will be able to monitor information that was previously difficult to reach.
In one Israeli media story covering this, she claims that the method of canvassing the social media will be "sophisticated." But in another publication she says they will do it using keywords. This indeed is a format used by web filtering software employed by Chinese and Iranian government internet snoops. And these systems are notoriously arbitrary and even foolish in what they pick up as possible violations.
But never fear, the good Colonel explains that she doesn’t want to monitor everything. Apparently that would cut a little too close to Big Brother’s bone and might be a tad intrusive and morally troubling:
"I think that you can’t try to catch everything," she said, "because that will make the censor lose its relevance, and furthermore – its morality."
You could indeed catch "everything" if you simply shut down the internet. But if you did that the censor would indeed lose its relevance because there’d be nothing left to censor. As for morality, the notion that expanding the censor’s brief to include social media is somehow "moral," is laughable. When the internet is less free, it means Israeli rights are trampled and that is the farthest thing from moral.
There is this passage in which the censor concedes that censorship and democracy are at loggerheads with each other. But she maintains that she’s a "sensitive" censor who is always thinking of minimizing her intrusion of free speech and other civil liberties. I tell you it’s goddamn touching to read:
I know that when I protect the security of the State of Israel I’m damaging freedom of speech. Censorship and democracy do not go hand in hand. That’s why every day we ask ourselves whether we’re damaging freedom of speech or the public’s right to know.
To which I respond, you may ask yourself the question but it doesn’t mean you’re coming up with the right answers.
I was tickled to find, thanks to Rupa Shah and a host of other eagle-eyed readers, that a question at the conference compelled the censor to address my censor-busting work here at Tikun Olam. In fact, if the conference organizers had been brave they would’ve invited me to address the meeting. In fact, when the Shamai Leibowitz story broke, a journalist who profiled me said he knew Israeli journalists organizing a conference very much like this one and that they intended to invite me to participate. I guess they got cold feet. Very likely, if anyone wished to invite me to this conference the censor would’ve refused to participate, which would’ve nixed my participation.
At any rate, the censors response was a curious non-sequitur:
Referring to recent incidents of censored information being published on social networks and blogs – notably by Jewish-American blogger Richard Silverstein – Vaknin-Gil said that "the censor is perceived as a body trying to control the Internet, to no avail. This is mistake – we try to operate within the Internet only in terms of elements related to us."
"The censor cannot reject everything," she added. "The censor can only touch things that are likely to harm the security of the state, and these incidents are few."
What she means to say is that she has no jurisdiction over what I report since I’m neither on Israeli soil nor an Israeli citizen. But Didi Remez has raised an important point in this Facebook entry: if he retweets or links to my censorship-evading posts will that get him into hot water. The answer I think is that it very well might. It depends on how eager the censor is to repress the story and how willing they are to take on whoever the Israeli offender might be. All of which makes me appreciate even more those Israelis who serve a sources and those willing to amplify my stories by promoting them to Israeli audiences on Twitter, Facebook, etc.
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Vaknin-Gil attempts to make a distinction between a private social media account and one representing a journalist. She claims not to be interested in private accounts but only ones belonging to journalists. Seems to me that distinction is very difficult to make and can easily bleed from a so-called "public" account hosted by a journalist into a "private" one. What really gave me the heebie-jeebies is her claim that the censor works hand in glove with journalists and that they have common interests (Hebrew). Not in my world they don’t. Perhaps in an authoritarian society that might be true. Which does Israel want to be?
She also makes a false claim when she says that Israeli journalists use censorship as a crutch when they claim they know much more than they’re able to report publicly. She maintains that in reality journalists don’t have anything to add to a story, but hide behind the censor to protect themselves from the claim that they’ve missed a story. I can in fact attest to the fact that many Israeli journalists are already aware of at least some of the scoops I report, but that their hands are tied by censorship. In fact, I’ve reported stories to Tzinor Layla editors that were under censorship and they will never put me on air in such a case. Or in a few rare cases, they may put me on air and edit out the name of the person who is the focus of the story.
By the way, Ms. IDF Censor–you can expect Israel’s ranking in international press freedom surveys to plummet even lower than it already is, with this new initiative.
There is another form of censorship in Israel: the judicial gag order. Gag orders have the same effect as censorship but they derive from different sources. The police or defendants in legal cases can file for gag orders which bar the Israeli media from reporting stories. In some cases, gag orders leak into military-security cases. For example, in a recent case a gag order prohibited for several hours revealing the identity of a dead IDF soldier whose remains were sought.
Israel is notorious for sheer volume of gag orders and the ease with which they may be obtained. Yoav Even is still protected by a gag order many months after he was accused of rape by an Israeli woman. A gag order prevented the exposure of Dror Oved, a young rightist thug guilty of phoning death threats to the Peace Now offices. In that case, both of his parents were high level police officers who were connected and could work the system to their and their son’s advantage. At times, gag orders appear to be approved almost on a whim.
I reported here last December, a story no Israeli reporter covered (perhaps because they didn’t believe the claim offered): that the security services (then) and the police (now) seek to reform the system and decrease the number of gag orders. I imagine their fear is that as long as Israeli judicial practice is so out of line with other western democracies, the farther outside the international norms Israel will remain. If they do indeed implement this reform it will be welcome. But Israeli authorities have a habit of announcing with great fanfare initiatives which are never realized. So I’ll remain agnostic on this till I see real proof.