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Anachronism with a Kafkaesque Touch

A few days ago, the Israeli blogger Yossi Gurvitz received a warrant from the Israeli Military Censor demanding that he subject all military-related posts on his blog’s Facebook page to prior approval. This marks a new phase in the status of freedom of speech in Israel. So far, while reports by institutional media — mainstream newspapers, TV and Radio Channels — were all subject to prior approval of the Military Censor, reports by private new and social media were not. One could have thought that in the age of new media, where information is instantly available on the net, the Military Censor’s work would become obsolete in relation to institutional media. Instead, the Military Censor has decided to extend its anachronistic authority over new and social media as well. According to the Censor, approximately thirty new media pages received a similar warrant — but the list has not been disclosed. In the present atmosphere in Israel, the suspicion arises that the Military Censor’s decision is not just in the interest of immediate and sensitive security needs, but also in the interest of political ones: fighting BDS, is but one example Yossi Gurvitz, who was forbidden by the Censor from describing the exact content of the warrant, announced that he would not abide. He responds to the warrant with this post, which we now bring translated from the original Hebrew. 

-Omri Boehm

Last Thursday, I received a message via Facebook messenger. The message’s author was (so it read) the Chief Censor of Israel’s Military Censor, one Colonel Ariella Ben-Avraham, and in it she demanded that I confirm receiving the Censor’s warrant. Entering Ben-Abraham’s Facebook page showed a page that was almost empty — her name and picture only. In fact, it seems that the Censor was so embarrassed by all the publicity she received in recent days that the page has been erased. When I tried to enter the page today in order to write the post, it no longer existed.

My first assumption was that someone on the right was trying to mess with my writing. After consulting with friends, I wrote an email query to the Censor. The answer was affirmative: according to the instructions sent by the Censor, every Facebook status that deals with any topic that has something to do with Israel’s security system, or describes issues that have no relation to this security system what-so-ever, must henceforth receive permission before being posted.

I replied frankly that I would not abide. I wrote about it on Twitter and Facebook, and I went to speak with lawyers — since then, I’ve had two days of non-stop media coverage of the incident.

I learnt several things from the experience thus far: that the Censor sent this warrant to approximately thirty new-media venues; that I am apparently a media venue; and that the Facebook page of my blog is defined as a Facebook page of a media-site.

Let me begin with what is easy to take apart in the Censor’s position. My blog has been public since May 2006. The Facebook page was established significantly later, I believe in 2010 or 2011. When I established the page, Facebook demanded that I choose a category indicating the field with which it would deal. “Fashion” didn’t seem right, so I went for “Media”. The number of people who have permission to update the page is one: me. The blog has two or three people with some administrative permissions, but they haven’t been active for several years. If one person with a Facebook page counts as a Media venue because of a measly Facebook category, then perhaps the Israeli Military Censor shouldn’t deal with new media. They do not seem to understand it sufficiently. Of course, the Censor can decide — and this would even be somewhat reasonable — that if enough people follow you, then you’re actual a media venue. However, they haven’t managed to to start arguing the matter in this way, so far.

There are further essential problems here. The warrant I received speaks about the Censor’s authority according to Israel’s Emergency Regulations. These are regulations from 1945 (i.e. British regulations from before Israel was established – O.B) that relate to written and electronic media, in days in which media venues were institutions. The Censor’s claim is that Israeli publication on a certain issue — the classic example is the nuclear weapons that Israel, at least according to non-Israeli media reports, has confirm the enemy’s suspicions about Israel’s arsenal. It would be difficult to argue that in a situation in which every person has the ability to write on everything, this claim still stands. Moreover, it is not at all clear where the Censor derives the authority to control social media. Such media has been active for years already without being disturbed, and if the Military Censor now wants to extend its authority, it better have legislation to fall back on. You shouldn’t restrict basic liberties in a democracy except by legislation.

In a way, we might agree that the Censor’s demand is not in itself unreasonable: a situation in which the Censor announces that it applies everywhere but in social media would simply invite people to commit security offenses in venues of social media. However, the demand to censor every status or tweet beforehand (they didn’t speak about Twitter, but why not, actually?) reveals the absurdity that comprises the Military Censor institution in our day. Next time, when someone tries to tell you that Israel is a democratic country, remember that technically every status of an Israeli on Facebook requires the approval of the Israeli Military Censor.

No, I do not exaggerate. The Military Censor indeed says that it has no intention to demand “private profiles” to submit their statuses to prior approval, but within the same breath they say that its authority obtains over every publication, “regardless whether of traditional media venues or of other venues of publication.” That is, the Censor has the authority; only it has not yet chosen to exercise it. This can change, and all that has to happen in order for it to change is a decision of the Censor, to which all Israeli residents are subject, in the same way that they are subjected to their military commander, the Major General in charge of the Home Front Command. The freedoms of speech and movement of all residents in Israel — allegedly, a democracy — depend to a large extent on the good will of these military officials.

Moreover, examining the warrant shows that it has very little connection to the state’s security in itself. My lawyers have instructed me not to quote from the warrant, or photograph and upload parts of it, but I will paraphrase. Every post or alleged report that can damage the IDF or its commanders has to receive prior approval by the military command. Thus: every report about (for instance) the military’s budget. Do you want to write on the stupidity of the F-35 project? This can harm the IDF, and the officer in charge of the F-35 project, and this has consequences to the budget of the IDF. So please send your post or tweet to the Military Censor for prior approval. Any relation here to actual security of the State of Israel? Any immediate and essential threat? There is none, but send it nevertheless. Do you want to write about the way in which Israeli universities are serving Israeli’s security forces? You will need the Censor’s prior approval. Do you want to write that a Palestinian person got arrested? Submit for approval. To write about the military contacts with the U.S., including information that has been published in media abroad (but often not in Israel because of the Censor)? Prior approval. Do you want to report that an Israeli citizen is captive in the hands of Hamas? Prior approval — and good luck getting it. What about something seemingly more innocuous, like a report about the attempts of an Israeli bank to get a loan abroad? Don’t kid yourself. You will need prior approval here too, because somehow this has become a “security need.”

Oh yes, and this too: if there was a prior publication on the same topic, and even if there was official military confirmation of this topic, you still have to request the prior approval from the Censor before writing about it. In other words, new media in Israel, whose soul and essence is speedy response, is requested to stop writing about the IDF and Israel’s security system — these insignificant players in Israeli life — unless it’s willing to yield editorial control to the Military Censor.

And this, too is important, you are not permitted to say that your tweet or your status passed through the Censor. One must preserve the semblance of a free state, after all!

Let us move on to the Kafkaesque issue. All these, dear Israeli readers, apply to you too. As noted, the Military Censor says it has the authority to censor social media; at the moment, it chooses to exercise this right in a rather limited way. But if you’re writing on certain topics — and I’m not allowed to say which — you may commit a censorship felony. Allow me to restate: you can commit a crime without knowing (or being able to know) that you committed a crime. It is possible that two weeks from now, the Chief Censor will change her mind and decide, hey, why not, regular folks writing on Facebook — including those who did not define their Facebook page as a page about Media – are also to be subject to her censorship. Whether or not, as I mentioned, their posts concern the state security at all.

So there exists a list of topics that discussion on social media, can make you a criminal — not all of them on the military. You don’t know what’s on that list, and I do know what’s on that list, am forbidden from telling you. So anything and everything you say can, in principle, get you into trouble? Perhaps you better just keep shut. In the end, this is the mark of an effective censorship campaign: you should be scared and silenced.

But it’s time to stop being afraid. Fear gives them power. Fear cools off the freedom of citizens in a country that pretends to be free and to have an open public debate. I do not intend to obey to the Censor’s warrant. I hope that everyone who received a similar warrant will ignore it, too. We will meet in court.

One last thing: The Military Censor is saying that it sent such warrants to some thirty new media venues, but it does not say which. It would be interesting to examine this list and see if, for example, also Yoav Eliasi and other right wing new media people received it. If the Censor wants to prevent the suspicion that it’s function is political, it better publish the list.

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Yossi Gurevitch

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