How ‘Free’ Is Israel’s Press?


Every year, Freedom House, a well-known NGO monitoring the state of democracy worldwide, releases its “Freedom of the Press” index. The index, evaluating press freedom according to fixed parameters, divides the world’s countries into three categories: those with a free press, those where the press is only partly free, and those where there is no freedom of press at all.

Last year, Israel’s media ranking was downgraded from “free” to “partly free,” placing the Jewish state, for the first time in its existence, among the world’s more troubled democracies. The rating was bumped back to “free” this year.

Freedom House cited several reasons for this shift. 2012, the year in review, saw a rise in harassment and physical attacks on Arab journalists. Instances of political interference with the Israeli Broadcasting Authority (IBA), and the corrosive effects foreign investors were having on the domestic media market were also considerations.

But the deciding factor for the downgrade, said Karin Karlekar, project director for the “Freedom of the Press” index, was the 2012 indictment of Haaretz reporter Uri Blau. Blau was the first Israeli journalist ever to be penalized for possessing classified documents obtained from a source — or in other words, for doing his job.

Karlekar spoke in a panel discussion titled “A Democracy with a ‘Partly Free’ Media,” held last month by the New America Foun-dation in Manhattan. Panel members included Blau; former chief editor of Haaretz, Dov Alfon; and Karlekar. The panel was moderated by Lisa Goldman, director of the New America Foundation’s Israel-Palestine Initiative.

Blau’s story, better known as the “Anat Kamm affair,” began in 2008, when a source in the IDF’s Central Command bureau leaked to him classified documents suggesting that the IDF was conduct-ing extra-judicial assassinations. The document — minutes from meetings of military top brass — recorded plans to assassinate several highly wanted militants, even when it was possible to arrest them. The plans also authorized a limited number of innocent casualties, if necessary. Both points contravened a 2006 Supreme Court ruling decreeing that targeted assassinations may be carried out only if an arrest was impossible, and that no innocent people may be harmed in the process.

According to the Haaretz report, headlined “License to Kill,” one of the specified targets and an unrelated person were killed two months later. The fact they died in a targeted assassination was covered up. The IDF spokesman stated the two were killed in a routine crossfire incident: they opened fire on us, and we shot them down.

As required for any story involving military issues, before going public Haaretz submitted its report to the Israeli military censor. The censor determined it posed no threat to national security, and approved its publication.

This was a story in which, said former editor Alfon, “The military establishment do all they can, deliberately, to lie to the Supreme Court and commit targeted assassinations on a broad level. … That was what Uri published. That was the story I saw, as an editor. But then — and this is really not a scoop, it’s a kind of a wake-up call for Israel — nothing happened.”

Once out, the article garnered very little public attention. There was no outrage about it, no follow-ups in the Israeli or international media. The only ones who did respond, and they did so forcefully, were the military and the Israeli security forces, the Shin-Bet.

With much fanfare, the Shin Bet denounced Haaretz and Alfon for “revealing state secrets.” The media eagerly picked up on Alfon’s shellacking, and came up with a new spin to put on extra-judicial assassinations story: it was now about how Haaretz flagrantly risked national security. The Israeli public received this narrative much better than it did the original story of extra-judicial assassinations.

Meanwhile, the IDF, the Shin Bet and the police joined forces to find Blau’s source. In late 2009 they found and arrested Anat Kamm, a budding journalist and a former clerk in the office of the commander of the Israeli Central Command. The fact of her incarceration was silenced with a double gag order.

This is where the story got its most outlandish spin. As Kamm worked as a gossip journalist dealing with media affairs, the fact of her arrest was immediately known to her journalist peers. The gag order prevented them from reporting on it properly, but they did write about it in indirect terms, drawing more and more attention to the fact they were being muzzled by the state. Finally, the story broke abroad while still under a gag order in Israel, creating an absurd situation: the Israeli media was prevented from reporting on what the whole world already knew. But when the story finally broke in Israel, Uri Blau one again made headlines — this time with the gag order as the scoop.

Blau, who was backpacking in Asia at the time, heard the news and understood he was no longer safe in Israel. He found refuge in London and returned home only a year later, after Haaretz negotiated an agreement with the Shin Bet: Blau would plead guilty for the count of possessing classified documents, and be sentenced to four months in prison. He would be allowed to serve the time doing community service.

“Eventually we decided it was better to leave this thing behind, finish this story,” Blau shrugged. “We took the plea bargain.”

Kamm was indicted for severe espionage, and sentenced to 4 2 years in prison (shortened after an appeal to 3 2 years). She’s currently suing Haaretz for exposing her.

In all this, said Alfon, the matter of the extra-judicial assassinations was broadly ignored.

“The real scoop here is that nobody in Israel is interested in learn-ing about that,” Alfon noted. “That is my main lesson from this affair.”

Israelis, said Alfon, respond passionately to reports of political corruption, financial misconduct or social inequalities within the Israeli society. But when it comes to injustices involving Palestinians, he said, “Nobody cares.”

Nationalistic feelings run too high in Israel for most Israelis to truly care what is being done with the enemy. And if what’s being done contradicts Israel’s self-definition as a democracy, well, Israelis would rather just not know about it, said Alfon. “Any story that points out the fact that Israel is not a democracy as it should be … most Israelis would prefer you not publish it. If you do publish, they won’t read it. And if they do read it, maybe by accident, they immediately forget it. This is self-denial at its worst.”

The trend of avoiding stories that reflect badly on the state of democracy was made worse in the past few years by the intervention of politically motivated foreign investors in Israel’s media market. The leading paper Israel Hayom, owned by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, now commands over 40 percent of general circulation. The paper is handed out and delivered to subscribers for free, a model no self-supporting publication can afford. Fully funded by Adelson, a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it can afford to lose millions of dollars a year while taking readers away from other papers dependent on readership for their funding.

In this financial reality, said Blau, “Newspapers are less willing to take the risk, and publish controversial stories. They’re afraid that if the public, the readership, will think a story is anti-Israeli, they will stop buying the paper.”

Haaretz still publishes such stories quite often. But Haaretz is read by less than 5 percent of the population, said Alfon, and even those readers tend to skip ahead when they see the word “Palestinian” in the headline.

Karlekar defined the Israeli media as being “still very vibrant, but with some signs of decline.” Alfon was somewhat harsher: the Israeli media, he warned, is undergoing “a long, slow and dangerous descent into a situation of self-denial. There is a total denial of reality: you don’t want to know about it. You don’t want to read about it.” And if things continue this way, soon no one will want to write about it.