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News Analysis; Israel Grapples with Censorship in Age of Instant Communications

The Israeli government is trying to grapple with military censorship in an era of instant communications.

The government is pondering what action to take against foreign correspondents who bypassed the military censor to report on a fatal army training accident three weeks ago.

But both the army and press officials are facing a possible need to change the rules of the game as introduction of the fax machine, electronic transmission and direct phone dialing facilitate getting around the censor.

Television correspondents equipped with point-to-point transmission disks to provide real-time pictures of events in progress heighten perceptions that the present system no longer works. It is based on a time when correspondents could file only by taking their copy to cable offices for transmission, where a censor could sit and read the copy.

The question has surfaced in an acute form amid ongoing controversy over coverage of a Nov. 5 accident at the Tze’elim training grounds in the Negev which killed five members of an elite unit and wounded six more.

In their most recent reports, overseas newspapers said the exercise was a rehearsal for a commando attack in Beirut on Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, a leader of the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah, which has stepped up attacks against Israel in recent weeks.

The Miami Herald was among those publications which ran the report, which then created headlines in Israel.

Israeli media cited the reports under rules which allow publication of foreign news items that might otherwise be censored.

The dilemma over censorship is compounded by press leaks in a war between generals that has developed over responsibility for the accident, and by complaints in parliament that the army withheld information on the presence of top army brass at the exercise.

Correspondents who filed uncensored copy on Tze’elim have been asked by the chief censor for an explanation and have denied breaching national security.

The Times of London correspondent said his article dealt with the “political fallout” of the war of the generals with the description of the unit involved serving only as background.

“At no point did I compromise Israeli security or any ongoing operation,” said Richard Beaston.

Foreign correspondents maintain they use information volunteered by senior officials and army officers whom they have every reason to trust and who view them as a channel for making specific issues public.

They know that once published abroad, the material can be picked up by the Israeli media.

High-level discussions on what action, if any, to take against correspondents who bypassed the censor on the Tze’elim disaster were being held at midweek. They involved Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who also holds the defense portfolio, senior army officers and Government Press Office officials.

Officials of the Foreign Ministry were assessing the possible impact on Israel’s image abroad of expulsion of foreign correspondents.

That penalty has in fact been rarely invoked. Other options range from personal reprimand through withdrawal of press credentials.

On accreditation, foreign correspondents sign an undertaking to abide by military censorship.

“It’s not up to the journalists to decide what is good for Israel and what endangers the safety of the country,” said the director of the Government Press Office, Uri Dromi.

“That’s what the censorship post was created for.”

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