Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman threatened legal action on Tuesday against people who spread unfounded rumors about national security incidents, after such false reports claimed the IDF chief of staff had been killed in Monday night’s helicopter crash, in which one officer died and a second was seriously injured.
“The phenomenon of spreading malicious rumors during and after security incidents is wanton, dangerous and inhuman,” the defense minister said in a tweet. “I will act decisively with legal measures against those who spread [rumors].”
At approximately 9 p.m., an Apache helicopter crashed in the Ramon Air Base in southern Israel. The pilot, Maj. (res.) David Zohar was killed; the co-pilot, a lieutenant in active service, was critically wounded.
Immediately after the crash, the military censor barred news outlets from publishing stories about the event. The gag order lasted more than three hours, until it was removed shortly after midnight on Tuesday.
During that time, rumors about the nature of the crash and the identities of the victims abounded on Facebook, Twitter and the WhatsApp messaging service.
One rumor that got considerable traction was that a senior officer was on the helicopter at the time of the crash. In some versions of the message, the senior officer was IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, complete with a short biography.
There were other rumors that the helicopter hadn’t crashed, but had been shot down.
While those false reports were racing around the internet, people in possession of verified details could not correct the lies, lest they violate the military gag order.
For instance, when a rumor started making the rounds that Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan was the senior figure who had been killed in the crash, Ben-Dahan sent a statement through WhatsApp denying the report.
That message was passed along by one of the recipients to other WhatsApp groups, but the sender was quickly chastised by Ben-Dahan’s spokesperson for spreading censored information.
Once the censorship was lifted, the military released a full statement about the crash, including a paragraph denying the rumors about senior officers being on the aircraft.
“Any rumor about the death or injury of other officers in this crash are incorrect,” the army said in its statement.
In perhaps a subtle offer of proof that Eisenkot was not on board, on Tuesday morning IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis also posted a photograph of the army chief during a tour of the barrier surrounding the southern West Bank.
הרמטכ״ל הבוקר בסיור.צה״ל משתתף בצערה של משפחת זהר, מאחל החלמה מהירה לטייס הפצוע ופועל לתחקור מקצועי של התאונה הקשה.
The military has a standing policy of keeping details of events in which soldiers are seriously wounded or killed under censorship until the families of the troops can be contacted by an official representative of the army, lest they find out about the death of a loved one through a news report.
Sometimes, this means the military will only confirm that “an Israeli” was injured, but not an Israeli soldier. In other cases, like on Monday night, the censor will not allow the publication of any information about the incident.
The military censor is also tasked with preventing the publication of information that it deems as potentially damaging to national security. Courts can also issue gag orders, which prevent news outlets from releasing information about ongoing investigations.
The censor faced considerable pushback from Israeli journalists last month, after it forbade publications from reporting on a shooting that took place in the Israeli embassy in Jordan, despite the fact that details of the incident were being reported around the world.
As the internet and social media make it easier for information to be spread without the need for traditional news outlets, Israel’s military censor faces an increasingly difficult challenge of keeping reports — true or false — from getting out.
In an attempt to prevent the spreading of rumors, last year the military unveiled a campaign in which the army shared the story of a family whose son was falsely reported on WhatsApp to have been killed in the 2014 Gaza war. This type of personal story was designed to make people feel guilty about blindly sharing rumors.