Global Journalist

Israel and gag orders

The public's right to know is one of the basic principles of a genuine democracy, but in Israel it not only is curtailed by “Military Press Censorship,” but also by the frequent imposition of gag orders by the civilian courts.

In the opinion of Amir Oren, whose reporting and analysis of situations that relate to national security are prominently featured in the daily Haaretz, these restrictions on freedom of the press often operate in tandem.

Censors simply ask judges to ban disclosure of information deemed too sensitive for publication or broadcast and the latter invariably comply, he says.

The difference between Israel and the U.S. is that the Israelis use censoring bans more often in cases that relate to political or security issues while the Americans resort to them in criminal or civil cases.

An example of this is the restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities on coverage of a Palestinian engineer's mysterious abduction last February from a Ukrainian train bound for Kiev to a prison in Israel.

Because of a gag order sought by the General Security Service (Israel's version of the FBI), it was impossible to publicize the details of Dirar Abu-Sisi's seizure by six men whose identity and nationality are still unknown. Reports in the European news media that some were Israelis and others Ukrainians could be quoted by the Israeli news media only if the source was specified.

According to the German weekly Der Spiegel, Abu-Sisi is an active member if not a key figure in the Gaza Strip's ruling Hamas organization, but this allegation was mentioned more than a month later when Abu-Sisi appeared in an Israeli court. He insisted that he was an engineer in charge of the Gaza Strip's electricity generating plant.

After his first day in court, the Israeli media were allowed to carry the GSA's charge that he was instrumental in extending the range of the various rockets and missiles in the Hamas organization's arsenal and that he was trained in ballistic warfare at a former Soviet institute in Kharkov.

His Ukrainian wife, Veronica, vehemently denies all this. She said she would take
her husband's case to the international court of justice in The Hague. Prior to the
abduction, Abu-Sisi was in the process of applying for Ukrainian citizenship because they decided to move to the Ukraine permanently with their six children, she said.

Another sensational case in which a gag order stifled the otherwise gregarious
Israeli news media is that of Anat Kam, a woman soldier assigned to a unit that deals with sensitive military information. She allegedly copied more than 2,000 secret documents stored in her army office and handed them over to Uri Blau, a reporter working for Haaretz.

A gag order was obtained immediately after she was taken into custody last year. It prevented the local news media from revealing any details.

Also a year ago, when Amir Makhoul, an Arab-Israeli human rights activist and head of the Union of Arab Community-Based Associations (a UN-recognized NGO), was arrested at 3:10 a.m. in his Haifa residence and was taken away by Shin Bet (General Security Service) agents, a gag order was slapped on that case as well.

The list is so long that space precludes mention of all the instances dating back
to Israel's establishment as an independent state. It includes a ban on disclosures related to the bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor in December 2007. Nothing can be said here either about that or Israel's main nuclear reactor at Dimona in the Negev desert.

As a result, journalists who purport to be in the know consistently quote reports
or disclosures published or broadcast abroad and scrupulously cite their sources to avoid arrest for violating the relevant gag orders.

This practice

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