Military censor seeks control over blogs, Facebook posts

Like established media outlets, bloggers now required to submit all security-related posts for advance review

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

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)

A first-time order by Israel’s chief military censor is requiring dozens of Facebook users and bloggers in the country to submit all security-related material for clearance before they can be published.

Thus far, the need for advance permission to publish what might be construed as sensitive security information has 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 recent weeks, the army’s new chief censor, Ariella Ben Avraham, has demanded of some 30 Facebook users and bloggers, many of whom deal with security issues, that they submit to the censor all relevant material. Failure to do so would constitute a violation of the state of emergency that Israel has kept in place since its founding, and would be prosecutable under law.

The left-wing activist Yossi Gurvitz — who runs the “Friends of George” Facebook page, which calls itself a blog for social, political and media criticism and has more than 10,500 likes — broke the story on Twitter on Wednesday, revealing that the military censor had told him he had to submit in advance any posts or statuses dealing with the army and security services.

He received the order via a Facebook message from Ben Avraham’s private account, he said. In the message, she attached a letter detailing the obligation for advance submission of any posts dealing with security issues.

Gutvitz said he had no intention of obeying the order and told the Haaretz daily that he was looking into his legal options. He told the Calcalist business daily that at first he thought the censor’s message was a prank.

The Hevra (Society) site also received a copy of the order. Describing itself as a social-democratic platform, it hosts a magazine published every two months.

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.”

File: Knesset member Ilan Gilon from the Meretz party. (photo credit: Flash90)
Knesset member Ilan Gilon from the Meretz party. (Flash90)

MK Ilan Gilon of the leftwing Meretz party said that in the wake of the order, he had asked the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to discuss the limits of censorship.

“Under the cover of darkness, there is no limit to the expansion of Big Brother,” Gilon told Calcalist. “It starts to recall [the dystopian novel] ‘1984.’ I’ve asked for a debate to understand what the boundaries of censorship are and how far they can go. Am I also subject to censorship when I talk to you? This is totally unacceptable.”

Attorney Jonathan Klinger, an expert on digital rights, told Calcalist that the censor’s move was unprecedented and “harms the freedom of speech of all Israeli citizens.”

“The censor does not need and cannot go to citizens who are not media outlets and restrict them from publishing whatever they want,” Klinger said, adding that “the act of sending an order to people who haven’t broken the law in the past and without well-based suspicions that they’re breaking the law in the present constitutes disproportionate harm to freedom of speech.”

There was no immediate comment from the censor’s office.

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