After blogs and Facebook, military censor sets sights on WhatsApp
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After blogs and Facebook, military censor sets sights on WhatsApp

Israel Police and United Hatzala resist request to let the censor join journalists’ distribution groups

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

The WhatsApp platform has been used to circulate unsubstantiated rumors that Iran will attack Israel within the next 24-48 hours, April 30, 2018. (CC BY-SA/Jan Persiel, Flickr)
The WhatsApp platform has been used to circulate unsubstantiated rumors that Iran will attack Israel within the next 24-48 hours, April 30, 2018. (CC BY-SA/Jan Persiel, Flickr)

Two weeks after ordering dozens of bloggers and Facebook users to submit security-related material for clearance before publication, Israel’s military censor is seeking to further extend its oversight to conversations between emergency services spokespeople and journalists on the popular messaging platform WhatsApp.

In a recent letter to the spokesperson’s department of the Israel Police, United Hatzalah ambulance service and a number of other community organizations, the military censor asked to be added to group chats used for communicating with media outlets.

In recent years, traditional channels of communication between spokespeople and journalists have been supplemented or replaced by WhatsApp groups allowing for the rapid dissemination of important information.

“In light of the numerous security incidents in recent months, the [Military Censor’s] unit has decided to ask the spokesman’s bodies of the organizations we work with to include us in WhatsApp groups for distributing [press releases],” the request stated.

The letter said it was important for the censor to be “up-to-date on what is happening in Israel,” in order “to protect the balance between freedom of expression and the Israeli public’s right to know [sic].”

Col. Ariella Ben Avraham, Israel's chief military censor and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon on August 30, 2015 (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Col. Ariella Ben Avraham, Israel’s chief military censor and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon on August 30, 2015 (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

After the new request was reported on Army Radio on Tuesday, United Hatzalah spokesman Moti Elmaliach sent a message to the journalists’ group informing them he opposed the request and would not be adding any representatives from the censor to the group.

“My position is clear: The role of the military censor is to oversee media outlets and not to interfere in the discourse between journalists and their sources,” he wrote.

The Israel Police spokesperson’s department is also strongly opposed to the request, Army Radio reported.

Earlier this month it was revealed that the military censor had ordered some 30 Facebook users and bloggers to submit all security-related material for clearance before it can be published.

The military censor, part of the IDF’s Directorate of Military Intelligence, has the authority to prevent information from being published by the media, but is limited in practice by the frequent tendency of news outlets to sidestep restrictions by quoting “foreign news sources.”

The 'Friends of George' Facebook page which received a request from Israel's military censor to submit security-related information before publication. (Times of Israel)
The ‘Friends of George’ Facebook page, which received a request from Israel’s military censor to submit security-related information before publication. (Times of Israel)

The need for advance permission to publish what might be construed as sensitive security information had previously been restricted to established news outlets, as well as organizations such as emergency services and front-line community councils. Failure to seek advance permission is a crime.

To date, posts and blogs from non-established outlets with possible implications for state security have been picked out automatically by a computer program and on occasion have been censored after publication. But in a first, the army’s new chief censor, Ariella Ben Avraham ordered the Facebook users and bloggers, many of whom deal with security issues, to submit all relevant material for advance review. Failure to do so, they were told, would constitute a violation of the state of emergency that Israel has kept in place since its founding, and would be prosecutable under law.

Sue Surkes contributed to this report.

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