2020 was a slow year for the IDF Censor. In fact, with an average of only one entire story banned from publication every three days, it was the censor’s slowest year in a decade. Throughout the year, the IDF Censor barred the full publication of 116 stories, while redacting an additional 1,403 pieces, according to figures released by the censor at the request of +972 Magazine and the Movement for the Freedom of Information, an Israeli NGO that works to establish governmental transparency.
That 10-year low is also reflected in the number of stories sent by news outlets to the censor for review (6,421) and the percentage of stories totally barred from publication (1.81%). For the sake of comparison, in 2014 — the year of Israel’s last massive military campaign in Gaza — Israeli news outlets sent a total of 14,274 stories to the censor. 2014 saw 3,122 stories redacted and 597 stories barred from publication (more than 4% of all stories filed).
All media outlets in Israel, as well as authors and publishers, are required to submit articles relating to security and foreign relations to the IDF Censor for review prior to publication. The censor draws its authority from “emergency regulations” enacted following Israel’s founding, and which remain in place to this today.
These regulations allow the censor to fully or partially redact an article filed with it — or even one that has already been published without its review, while barring media outlets from indicating in any way whether a story has been altered. However, while legal criteria defining the IDF Censor’s mandate are both strict and quite broad, the decision of which stories to submit for review remains in the hands of editors at media outlets.
The IDF Censor neither shares information about the nature of the stories it chooses to redact, nor does it provide a monthly breakdown by media outlet, making it difficult to deduce what may have caused the drop. One can only assume there could have been fewer security-related events, and which the censor deemed as especially sensitive during a year plagued by a global pandemic, or that journalists had a far smaller attention span for non-COVID stories. In some cases, security correspondents were actually reassigned to cover the pandemic, leading to diminishing criticism of the security establishment.
Even on a slow year, this kind of military intervention in the media at an average rate of four times a day is extremely high, especially when considering that Israel is the only country in the world that views itself a Western, liberal democracy that also legally binds its journalists to send its military stories for review prior to publication.
Another aspect of the censor’s work is its operations in the Israeli national archives. Because the archives are now fully online and no longer have a physical library open to the public, the Censor has been reviewing all declassified materials, which has sometimes led it to hide files that had already been made public.
When the archives’ digitization began in 2016, the archival authorities submitted some 7,800 files for the censor’s review. In 2020, the number decreased to 2,940. Unlike news items, the censor declined to provide numbers on how much declassified archival material had been redacted, responding only that “the vast majority of documents were approved for publication without alterations.” This would indicate that some documents have indeed been redacted, even though they had already gone through the archives own internal censorship.
The censor is fully exempt from Israel’s Freedom of Information Act, and though it has essentially volunteered to provide numbers to +972 in recent years, its answers are getting shorter by the year. “Reviewing the censor’s activity by exposing these figures holds immense importance for the protection of a free press,” says Atty. Or Sadan, from the Movement for the Freedom of Information.
In the first responses to our appeals in 2016, the censor released the number of archival documents that were redacted, and the number of cases in which the censor demanded that a media outlet remove information published without prior approval (an average of 250 cases a year). Despite repeated attempts, these figures have not been given to us in recent years. (You can read more about +972’s policy vis-à-vis the censor here).
“The information released by the Censor allows us to interrogate trends in its operations and ensure that at least its interference doesn’t grow considerably. We believe that the mere publication of this annual review creates a chilling effect [on the IDF Censor], and helps ensure that decisions to redact stories are made with care and take into account the understanding that redactions withhold information from the public that a journalist found to be relevant,” Sadan added.
The censor is fully exempt from Israel’s Freedom of Information Act, and though it has volunteered to answer +972’s questions in recent years, its answers are getting shorter by the year. Over the years, +972 has stopped receiving data about the number of books sent to the censor for review, the number of redacted archive files, and the number of cases in which the censor has asked media outlets and individuals on social media to remove stories that have already been published.
“Why is it that censored information stays hidden from the public even after, in some cases, it ceases to pose a threat?” asked Sadan. “The censor should allow retroactive publication of redacted stories once they are deemed safe, in order to allow the public to examine its methods and the level of restrictions used against freedom of the press.” All these open questions allow the IDF censor to shroud its anti-democratic activities in mystery, with no opportunity for public scrutiny.
The IDF Censor’s leadership has gone through significant changes over the past year. Brig. Gen. Ariella Ben Avraham, who served as chief censor from 2015, left the post in 2020 and reportedly joined NSO, the highly controversial Israeli cybersecurity firm that sells hacking software to governments worldwide and has long been accused of complicity in abusive surveillance. Ben Avraham was succeeded by Col. (res.) Eyal Samuelov as the interim chief for six months, followed by Col. Doron Ben Barak, the current IDF chief censor. Unfortunately, it seems Ben Barak has chosen to continue his predecessor’s policy of restricting information about the IDF Censor that is shared with the public.