As the dual Israeli invasions of Lebanon and Palestine continue unabated, local and international journalists covering the conflict have been affected by orders from the Israeli military censor’s office not to report successful hits by Hezbollah into Israel.
A document leaked by international journalists, issued by the Israeli military censor’s office on the 16th of July, reads:
"Censorship Policy Regarding Fighting in the North
1.As of now, over 1,200 rockets have been fired at Israel; it is expected that this will continue.
2.Therefore, following are the Military Censor’s relevant guidelines:
a.The Military Censor will not approve reports regarding visits of Israeli Government and IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] officials in the north of Israel until the visits are over due to the clear connection between officials’ visits and missile attacks on the area in question.
b.The Military Censor will not approve reports on missile hits at IDF bases and/or strategic facilities.
c.The Military Censor will not approve reports on missiles that fall in the Mediterranean Sea.
d.The Military Censor will not approve reports on time periods when citizens are permitted to leave their shelters. Warnings of such times are utilized by the enemy for timing attacks.
e.Reporting on locations in which there are public defense and organizational difficulties should be avoided as much as possible.
3.Real-time reporting on the exact location of rocket hits must be strictly avoided! "
Since the issuance of the censorship document, news crews reporting in the area have not reported the location of Hezbollah strikes into Israel. Each news crew is accompanied by an Israeli police officer, who strictly monitors what the news crew is broadcasting.
Censorship during wartime is a common practice in various regimes throughout the world. Veteran journalist John Pilger writes, about the U.S. media coverage of the U.S.-Iraq War, "The most important soldiers in the Iraq war were not the troops, but the journalists and the broadcasters. Lies were transformed into themes for public debate. The true reason was of course—as we all now know—not to rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein and remove their alleged weapons of mass destruction, but to achieve the real Anglo-American aim: to capture an oil-rich country and to control the Middle East."
During the 40-year Israeli occupation of Palestine, the problem of Israeli media censorship of news from the Occupied Territories has been particularly prevalent, as the Israeli military censor’s office requires all reports from the Occupied Territories to be approved by the Censor before being broadcast.
In an interview with the British Guardian newspaper, the head of the Israeli Military Censor’s office, Col. Sima Vaknin, told of her broad powers, saying, "I can, for example, publish an order that no material can be published. I can close a newspaper or shut down a station. I can do almost anything".
The Guardian report continues, "Israel believes that as a small country in a near constant state of conflict, having a say over what information gets out to the world is vital to its security. Critics say the policy is a slippery slope not fit for a democracy.
The range of issues subject to censorship in the latest conflict with Lebanese guerrillas are all related to the goal of preventing Hezbollah from using the media to help it better aim rockets at Israel.
The Associated Press has agreed, like other organizations, to abide by the rules of the censor, which is a condition for receiving permission to operate as a media organization in Israel.
Reporters are expected to censor themselves and not report any of the forbidden material. This story was not submitted to a censor. When in doubt, they can submit a story to the censor who will hand it back, possibly with deletions. The AP will note in a story if any deletions have been made. If a reporter violates the rules, he or she suffers the consequences.
The rules include no real-time reports giving the exact locations of guerrilla missile hits; no reports of missile hits – or misses – on strategic targets; and no reports telling when citizens are allowed to leave their bunkers for supplies.
Journalists are also not allowed to give details about senior Israeli officials going to the north, where Hezbollah’s rockets are falling, until the officials have left the area. They also cannot report places where there aren’t enough shelters or where public defense is weak.
So far in this conflict, about one rocket in 100 fired by Hezbollah has killed an Israeli. The rest usually explode in empty fields, tear concrete from abandoned streets or plunk into the Mediterranean. Fired blind, Hezbollah’s thousands of mostly short-range, inaccurate munitions simply pose a random peril to Israeli citizens.
For obvious reasons, Israel would like to keep it that way. But live media feedback, the censor says, changes everything.
If a news outlet reports immediately that a missile splashed into the sea, for example, any guerrilla with an Internet connection knows to aim left. Report that an oil refinery in Haifa went up in flames, and Hezbollah will surely celebrate and reload. Report that a senior official is headed north, and rockets will be raining down in no time.
Or so goes the logic of censorship.
But in an era when mobile phones have cameras and the terrorists’ weapons include laptops and video crews, even the chief censor acknowledges that a complete blockade of news is in many cases not possible.
"Not in 2006", she says.
Restrictions on the media are not unique to Israel. The United States military makes journalists embedded with troops in Iraq sign a document agreeing not to report specifics of troop movements and attacks in real time, for reasons similar to Israel’s.
Critics say the censorship system is worse than ineffective – it’s undemocratic, often counterproductive and a violation of freedom of speech.
"People are entitled to get as much information as they can about what’s happening in a conflict", says Rohan Jahasekera, associate editor of the London-based magazine, the Index of Censorship.
Israel’s censorship rules are not unusual, he adds, but "it’s unusual in that they’re enforced."
Jahasekera also disputed arguments that reporting missile landings helped Hezbollah, since the rockets the Islamic resistance group uses are "spectacularly inaccurate."
Bob Steele, Nelson Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute, a media studies organization, says editors should bear the responsibility for decisions to publish or not.
"These are decisions that the news organizations and journalists should make with the input of government and military officials", he said. "They should not be decisions that are made by default."
"We should always push back on censorship," Steele adds, even if it’s a losing fight.