Since 1948, Israel’s chief military censor has played a significant role in determining how the country’s news media operate. The rules governing the military’s ability to dictate what can and cannot be reported by Israeli media, as well as by foreign correspondents, have changed over time, but the overarching justification for censorship – Israel’s unique and ongoing security concerns – has not.
Generally speaking, journalists working in Israel accept censorship as a reasonable, if somewhat limiting practice in a country where even the smallest of details buried in a news story can have major security implications.
That changed last week when reports emerged indicating as many as 30 well-trafficked Israeli blogs and popular Facebook users would henceforth be required to submit copy to the military censor prior to publication. As the news spread, some of those affected by the new rules lashed out online, questioning whether the military – and, by extension, the state – was actively trying to limit freedom of expression. A few even vowed to circumvent censorship, though, given that the office of the military censor already possesses algorithmic technology to root out problematic web posts, this seems easier said than done.
Still, the new online censorship rules signal a turning point for Israeli media, a recognition that the traditional forms of news reporting and dissemination are being challenged, if not supplanted, by bloggers and the viral power of social media influencers.
Of course, this is not a uniquely Israeli issue – in recent weeks, some of Canada’s own news media giants, including Torstar, Postmedia and Rogers, have announced major cutbacks to print services amid declining revenues. Since many of these media companies place heavy bets on online platforms, Canadians are left to wonder where our own national media practice is heading.
Whichever way the media revolution plays out, the reliability of news sources will continue to be a key area of scrutiny, especially when it comes to Israel. Last week, hours after an attack by three Palestinian terrorists at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem left 19-year-old border policewoman Hadar Cohen dead, CBS News ran the headline “3 Palestinians killed as daily violence grinds on” on its website. Accusations of biased reporting came swiftly from Israel’s Foreign Ministry (whose spokesman, Emmanuel Nachshon, called the headline “unparalleled chutzpah”), as well as from many people online. Eventually, the headline was changed to “Palestinians kill Israeli officer, wound another before being killed.”
The CBS fiasco illustrates just how poor news reporting from and about Israel can sometimes be. Even so, media bias is not an excuse for censorship, in Israel or anywhere else. But if upstart online journalists and bloggers in Israel expect to play by different rules than their ink-stained competitors when it comes to security matters, that argument doesn’t seem to have much merit, either.
In a country with such varied opinions and intense conversations as Israel, the new journalists have an important role to play, and part of it is to break some of the editorial rules by which the news industry has long abided. And yet, when it comes to Israel’s security, everyone should play by the same standards. Some rules are not meant to be broken.