Sunday, April 25, 2010

'I Will Censor Anything That Will Be Useful to the Enemy'

Interview with Israel's Chief Censor

Spiegel Online
23 April '10

Israel prides itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East, but the country also has a controversial practice of censoring reporting on military and intelligence issues. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, the country's chief censor discusses her office's work and defends its practices.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Israel claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East. At the same time, there are things that seem to contradict democratic values, like the country's military censor.

Sima Vaknin-Gil: This is a common misconception. We are not a military unit. If you go to our examining room, you will see mainly civilians. We do not belong at all to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The censor is based in the IDF, but we work under the auspices of the State of Israel.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You are wearing the uniform of a colonel in the Israeli Army, but the chief of staff is not your commander?

Vaknin-Gil: The chief of staff does not appoint the censor, he cannot fire the censor and he does not influence his work. It is the defense minister who appoints the censor. But from the moment he assumes his position, the censor's decisions are only subordinated to the High Court of Justice.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In criminal court cases the principle is this: If in doubt, back the defendant. Is the principle in your work that, if there is any doubt, you support state security and not the publication?

Vaknin-Gil: In 1988, the High Court of Justice laid forth an extremely rigid test. In order to censor a publication, there has to be an "imminent certainty of actual harm to state security." That same ruling mentions that in any case in which there is a direct conflict between the freedom of the press and state security, then state security will prevail. But our approach is very liberal. In the past, I served in intelligence -- and I wish that our enemies would publish some of the things we approve; it would serve me greatly.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How can a specific publication endanger state security?

Vaknin-Gil: Our enemy is the intelligence officer sitting in Damascus and reviewing the Israeli media and Internet. I will censor anything that comes across my desk that I believe will be useful to the enemy for purposes of gathering valuable information. It can be one letter, one word, one line. At times, I regret, it can be more -- but we aim to keep our intervention to a minimum.

(Read full interview)

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