Journalist Uri Blau to stand trial for holding leaked documents

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein announced on Wednesday his intention to indict Uri Blau, one of Israel’s top investigative reporters, for possession of classified materials without permission. The materials in question are documents given to Blau by whistleblower Anat Kamm; Kamm, then a conscript clerk in the office of GOC Central Command, copied them from the GOC’s computer, believing they constituted evidence of war crimes carried out in defiance of international law and Israel’s own Supreme Court, including summary executions of terrorism suspects who could have been detained.

Kamm is presently serving a four and a half-year prison sentence following a plea bargain in which she admitted to possession and transfer of classified documents.

The decision today marks a crucial milestone in a process that has been dragging on for more than two years, as prosecutors considered the implications of indicting a journalist for doing something well established in his trade. Almost every journalist with claims to be anything but a stenographer for the army spokesman has held onto classified information – written or otherwise – that was received outside official channels, without authorisation.

Although Blau, in the early days of the investigation into the leak, had already given over to the state all the documents he used to publish the story on summary executions, the state demanded the rest of the cache. During the investigation, Blau spent time in political exile in London, waiting while his lawyers negotiated with the state the terms of a deal under which he would not be prosecuted. Once the deal was struck and Blau did his part, however, the state got greedy, and demanded full access his entire archive, amassed over a decade of investigative work. Then it said it might prosecute him anyway. Blau remained in limbo, his ability to work severely curtailed: few sources would go out on a limb for a journalist likely to be tightly monitored by the security agencies. He only began writing regularly a few months ago, publishing a few stories on the behind the scenes workings of the Israeli right, mostly through deft use of freedom of information requests.

Obtaining and retaining classified information is the bread-and-butter of a civilian journalists monitoring the country’s most powerful and insulated institution – the military. Although Israel has no laws to protect journalists, in most cases (barring one prosecution concerning the revelation of cooperation between the Israeli and Morrocan intelligence agencies half a century ago, and an attempt to prosecute a senior military correspondent after the Gulf War for revealing the regrettable fact the much-lauded “Patriot” missiles failed to intercept a single SCUD), the state has not gone after journalists for doing something so essential to their work – until now.

According to a Justice Ministry press release [Hebrew] announcing the decision, principles of press freedoms were taken into account in the decision to indict Blau, but the nature and quantity of the documents, along with Blau’s attempts to hold onto them, led the attorney general to the conclusion that there was “no correlation whatsoever” between Blau’s possession of the documents and proper journalistic practice. “Blau held, knowingly and without supervision, hundreds and thousands of documents classified as ‘secret’ and ‘top secret,’ which were stolen from the Central Command by the soldier Anat Kamm, and he violated his obligation – and later his obligation before the state authorities – to stop holding them… Their exposure to, or potential acquisition by hostile entities would have caused damage to the security of the state and endangered the lives of IDF soldiers,” reads the press release.

Danny Zaken, Chairman of the Jerusalem branch of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), released a statement condemning the decision. “The decision of the attorney general to file an indictment against Uri Blau brings Israel back a generation, and casts into doubt its definition as a real democratic state. The decision joins a string of legislative moves designed to harm the status of journalism and its critical role in ensuring the existence of a democratic regime. Uri Blau’s articles went through the censor, and the Haaretz journalist did what any good journalist must do: expose to the public what is being hidden from it, for it to judge.

“It is disappointing that the attorney general is joining the ranks, through his decision, of those who hurt freedom of expression, instead of being the one to defend it from governmental forces seeking to restrict it. The Union will work to reverse the decision and will use all of the tools at its disposal to protect Blau and free journalism in Israel,” the statement continued.

Noa Yachot contributed to this report

For background on how the case unfolded:
TIMELINE: The Anat Kamm affair