URGENT: Journalists’ petition against the prosecution of Uri Blau

[Please scroll down for the actual petition – everything preceding it is my own commentary].

Earlier this week, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein informed Haaretz reporter Uri Blau he will hold a hearing for him at the end of the month, to decide whether to put him on trial. This step would have disastrous ramifications for Israeli freedom of the press, wounding it behind recovery. At the bottom of the post is a petition to the Israeli Attorney General, urging him not to press charges against the journalist; you can read more about the campaign on Noam’s blog.  As of 7 May, nearly 200 Israeli journalists have already signed the Hebrew version of the petition. Now it’s time for their colleagues from around the world to add their names.

Who is Uri Blau?

Although young, Uri Blau is one of the key investigative Israeli journalists of his generation. He has such notches on his belt as the reports on suspected money laundering operations of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (the latter is likely to be indicted later this year, largely thanks to Blau’s reporting), the Israeli military’s deliberate violation of Supreme Court orders, and, only yesterday, an investigation of a government-supported organization in Jerusalem, which serves, it appears, as a front for a radical right anti-intermarriage gang and employs former members of terrorist organization Kahane Chai.

Why is he being put on trial?

The state wishes to prosecute Blau for holding on to classified documents without permission. The documents were command meetings minutes and orders showing senior IDF officers deliberately violated orders of the Supreme Court. These documents have been seen and cleared for publication by the Israeli military censor, and Blau returned the documents to the military as soon as as the story was out in print. I’ve written elsewhere about the technicalities of the case and how it relates to the prosecution of Blau’s source, former soldier Anat Kamm. It’s worth noting the conduct of Haaretz and of Blau himself have been criticized, especially in regard to their relationship with Kamm. Nevertheless, this is certainly not a reason for Blau to go to jail, and for journalism to take such a blow on his behalf.

A decision to indict Blau would be an end to independent journalism on military and security affairs in Israel, and quite possibly investigative reporting of corruption, too: In both cases much of your key evidence comes in the shape of private or classified materials, with the gravity of the offense and outrage they document outweighing the much lighter offense you might be committing by accessing and publishing them.

Why is this such a big deal?

No journalist in Israel has ever been prosecuted for perusing classified material without permission – a key instrument in journalistic work. If Blau is sent to prison, no journalist may dare to use that instrument again – and Israeli journalism will lose one of its strongest and most critically important functions – both for its role as a keeper of Israel’s democracy and for the role it plays in international affairs around the Middle East.

What can we do to help?

What follows below is my translation of the Hebrew petition, which has been endorsed by the campaign. If you are a journalist, commentator or editor, please take a stand with your Israeli colleagues and email kelev.shmira@gmail.com with your name and affiliation to add your signature (“freelance” is also fine).  This is a moment of critical, unprecedented importance for the freedom of the Israeli press. Please also circulate it among your contacts and colleagues.

The petition itself:

Dear Mr. Weinstein,

We – journalists, commentators and editors from around the globe, fearing for the professional freedom of our Israeli colleagues – call upon you to refrain from prosecuting Haaretz journalist Uri Blau for unlicensed possession of classified materials. Some of us have our reservations regarding the conduct of Mr. Blau and Haaretz in the affair. But all of us are concerned with the ramifications a decision to prosecute Mr Blau would have for the vitally important work of the Israeli media.

On March 23, the Israeli prosecution service announced it intends to charge Mr Blau with “retaining secret information by an unauthorized person (without intention to harm the security of the state)”, pending a hearing before the Attorney General. Trying a journalist for possession of classified  secret documents would gravely infringe upon the freedom of the Israeli press. Such a move would immediately constrain our Israeli colleagues’ freedom of action, and their ability to expose corruption and other wrongs afflicting their society.

Putting Mr. Blau on trial would set a precedent that would damage investigative journalism, the very essence of free media, beyond repair. It is impossible to expose corruption without using documents – including classified documents – to build up the factual infrastructure for the report. In this specific case, we should stress that the report based on the documents in questions was submitted to and confirmed for publication by the Israeli military censorship, We call upon you not to prosecute Mr. Blau, and to make do with the fact that Mr Blau had already returned all the classified documents in his possession to the state, as per an earlier agreement between Haaretz and the Israeli security services.

Prosecuting a reporter in such circumstances, for the first time in Israeli history, is a careless step down a slippery slope, at the bottom of which lies an end to the ability of Israeli journalists and media to fulfill their task as the guardians of democracy.

With great concern,

The undersigned:

Email Kelev.Shmira@gmail.com to add your signature.

Click here to go to the campaign website for the latest signatures – they will be updated once a day.