04.03.10

Israel's Censorship Scandal

A 23-year-old journalist is under house arrest for exposing government corruption, and an Israeli court has gagged the media. Judith Miller on the censorship scandal rocking Tel Aviv.

A 23-year-old journalist is under arrest for exposing a secret Israeli assassination plot, and another has fled to London, afraid for his life. Judith Miller talks to insiders who have been gagged by the government about the scandal rocking Tel Aviv, and Israel's slide toward Iranian-style censorship.

You’ve probably never heard of Anat Kamm. Few people have. But for nearly four months, the 23-year-old Israeli journalist has been under house arrest in Tel Aviv for allegedly stealing and leaking secret Israeli defense ministry documents to a journalist from Ha'aretz, one of Israel’s leading dailies.

Kamm would love to tell her side of the story, her friends and associates tell me. So would her lawyers. So, too, would Dov Alfon, the chief editor of Ha'aretz, a liberal paper, and Uri Blau, the reporter to whom Kamm allegedly leaked the documents she was said to have copied while she was completing her military service.

“In what kind of country does a journalist simply disappear with other journalists and news outlets having no recourse to publish about it?” asked one blogger. “China? Cuba? Vietnam? Iran? North Korea?”

But they cannot talk or write about the espionage case. In an extremely rare action, an Israeli court has ordered the Israeli media not to publish or broadcast a word about Kamm, the allegations against her, or the investigation that has led Blau, the Ha'aretz reporter involved, to flee to London. For almost four months, Blau has been in self-imposed exile there to avoid answering questions about how and from whom he obtained the confidential defense department documents that are said to have resulted in a spate of stories alleging personal and institutional misconduct on the part of the Israeli Defense Forces, the hallowed IDF, and some of its senior officials.

In a nation that prides itself on its vibrant discourse and a free press, this is stunning, depressing news.

What is being called the “Anat Kamm affair” has produced its own anomaly: Since details about the inquiry have begun spilling out into the non-Israeli press, Israelis can only gossip about what the non-Israeli media are reporting. Violating such gag orders in Israel can result in severe financial penalties for Israeli newspapers and magazines and jail for editors and other media executives. At least one publication was temporarily closed several years ago for disregarding a similar court order.

The saga, I am being warned, is complex. Parts of it that have not been disclosed are said to be enormously sensitive. But based on what has been reported by Israeli bloggers, the Jewish Telegraph Agency, two British newspapers, and on Friday, the Associated Press—coupled with what I’m hearing from sources close to the investigation—the case could come to a head on or before April 12, when an appeals court is scheduled to hear an appeal by Israel’s Channel 10 and Ha'aretz of a court ruling in February upholding the gag order.

Here is what has happened so far. In mid-December, Kamm, then a media reporter for Walla, a popular Israeli Internet site on popular culture, was arrested and accused of having passed along secret information aimed at harming national security, a charge whose maximum sentence is life in prison. At the same time, an Israeli court imposed the gag order barring officials in Israel or the normally irrepressible Israeli media from disclosing any details of the case.

The government reportedly alleges that sometime during her two-year compulsory military service ending in June 2007, Kamm copied a vast number of secret documents without authorization—one blogger said as many as a thousand—while working as a clerk in the office of the IDF’s Central Command. She is accused of having given some of this information to Blau, who in turn used it to publish several stories in Ha'aretz accusing the IDF and senior staff of misconduct. She is reported to have denied the charges.

The story that supposedly triggered the government’s initial interest in the case was an article that Blau published in November 2008 alleging that the IDF had disregarded Israeli law in killing a Palestinian militant in the occupied West Bank in 2007. According to bloggers and the British paper, The Independent, Blau cited defense ministry memos and emails in reporting that the IDF had assassinated a member of Islamic Jihad in the West Bank town of Jenin in apparent violation of an Israeli Supreme Court ruling six months earlier outlawing such assassinations if a peaceful arrest was possible. Specifically, Blau’s article cited a confidential defense ministry document from March 2007 which included an order from Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, then Israel’s senior commander in the West Bank, permitting the IDF to shoot three top Islamic Jihad members even if they did not pose a clear and present danger.

Kamm was working at that time in Gen. Naveh’s office.

News of the investigation and the house arrest of an Israeli journalist was initially reported on March 15, when Richard Silverstein, a Seattle-based blogger who runs a Web site called Tikun Olam, or in English “Repairing the World,” disclosed Kamm’s arrest—though not by name. “What kind of country allows its domestic intelligence service to arrest a journalist secretly and maintain her in detention secretly,” Silverstein wrote. “In what kind of country does a journalist simply disappear with other journalists and news outlets having no recourse to publish about it? China? Cuba? Vietnam? Iran? North Korea? Is that what Israel is aiming for? To be no better than countries ruled by despots?”

Avner Cohen, an author of a book on Israel's nuclear program who is now at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, said that in earlier gag order cases, the Israeli media had ignored the orders once the banned information was published in the foreign press. Yet in this case, despite such disclosures, the Israeli media remained silent. "The Israeli press's silence is cowardly," he said in an interview.

Yedioth Ahranot, Israel’s largest circulation daily, also noted the existence of such a gag order and espionage inquiry, but once again, without mentioning Kamm’s name. Late last week, the story was picked up by the Jewish Telegraph Agency, whose Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas disclosed some new details, and then by the AP. On Friday, the Independent disclosed that Blau was “hiding in Britain,” fearful that he might also face charges in Israel in connection with the government inquiry. The newspaper reported that Ha'aretz was negotiating with Israeli prosecutors the terms of his return to Israel.

Dov Alfon, the editor-in-chief of Ha'aretz, apologized for not being able to answer my questions about those talks or Blau’s role in the investigation, writing that there is a “total gag order” on the Anat Kamm affair. But he confirmed reports that the newspaper was challenging the gag order in court on April 12th, along with Channel 10. The paper’s decision to support Blau and to challenge the order, he wrote in an email, “speak for themselves.”

In a statement to The Guardian newspaper, Alfon said that the paper would keep Blau in London “as long as needed.” He praised him for having published “dynamite stuff,” adding that Israeli officials were clearly “not satisfied with these kind of revelations” in a major newspaper. “Israel is still a democracy and therefore we intend to continue to publish whatever public interest demands and our reporters can reveal,” he said.

Israel’s policy on targeted assassinations of Palestinian militants has been controversial both within and outside of Israel. Since that story, however, Blau has broken numerous stories involving alleged IDF abuses and corruption among its senior officials, many of which appear to be based on IDF documents and information. In January 2009, for instance, he reported that a secret defense ministry database showed that about 75 percent of the construction in the vast majority of Israeli settlements had been carried out illegally, that is “without the appropriate permits or contrary to the permits that were issued.” Blau also reported that the IDF database, portions of which he published, showed that the construction of roads, schools, synagogues, yeshivas, and even police stations had taken place on private land owned by Palestinians in the West Bank.

Last October, he reported that although Defense Minister Ehud Barak had transferred shares in his consulting company to his daughters when he assumed his present government post and vowed not to conduct business through Ehud Barak Ltd. while in office, over 6.5 million shekels from Israel and abroad—nearly $2 million—had flowed into the company and a subsidiary since then.

Because of the Passover holiday, defense officials could not be reached for comment on these allegations or on the Anat Kamm case. But Blau’s associates note that Ha'aretz had submitted all of his stories to Israeli IDF censors prior to their publication, as Israeli policy requires, and that the censors had blocked none of them.

Nevertheless, Blau’s associates believe that the IDF’s embarrassment over such stories prompted the investigation into his sources, which, in turn, fingered Kamm as the source of at least some of the information.

Kamm, whom friends describe as an energetic reporter with what one called “slightly left-of-center politics,” has reportedly denied all of the charges against her. Associates would not say whether she knew Blau before or after her military service. She worked at Walla, which until recently was owned by Ha'aretz, for which Blau works, before beginning her mandatory military service in July 2005. After completing military service in June 2007, she returned to Walla, this time as a media reporter. She remained there until three weeks ago, when she went on a leave without pay. Several sources told me they had heard that Walla had fired her, but associates say that she was forced to stop her reporting on the media because “suddenly the media were reporting on her.”

Reached by telephone, Eytan Lehman, one of her two attorneys, declined comment on her case, citing, once again, the Israeli court’s gag order.

Israeli censors are notoriously fickle and Israeli courts traditionally responsive to their requests for blocking the dissemination of information that might jeopardize or harm Israeli security. For instance, Israeli newspapers, especially Yedioth Ahranot, have disclosed details of the alleged killing by the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, of a senior Hamas operative in Dubai. But they have not been permitted to report that Israel carried out the killing.

Israel, like the United States at the federal level, also has no shield law that protects journalists from being forced to reveal the sources of their stories. But Israeli analysts said they could not recall a precedent for the house arrest of a journalist in connection with the publication of sensitive information. Shortly before the election of Ariel Sharon as prime minister in 2003, Israeli prosecutors launched a secret inquiry into who leaked information about a story published by Ha'aretz into alleged illegal payments to Sharon. Israeli prosecutors repeatedly asked Baruch Kra about the source of the story, but Kra refused to reveal that information. The source was eventually identified, however, when Israeli officials obtained a court warrant authorizing their inspection of his telephone records. No one was jailed.

Judith Miller is an author and a Pulitzer Prize-winning former investigative reporter for the New York Times. She is now an adjunct fellow at Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor to its magazine, City Journal, and a Fox News commentator.