A spike in censorship: Israel censored on average one news piece a day in 2018

The IDF Censor prohibited the publication of more news reports last year than in almost any other year this decade. While fewer articles were submitted for review than in previous years, the percentage of stories that were partially or fully censored was significantly higher.

An Israeli soldier attempts to block the view of a photographer as soldiers body search Palestinian men in the West Bank city of Hebron on June 22, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
An Israeli soldier attempts to block the view of a photographer as soldiers body search Palestinian men in the West Bank city of Hebron on June 22, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Israel’s military censor prohibited the publication of 363 news articles in 2018, more than six a week, while partially or fully redacting a total of 2,712 news items submitted to it for prior review. According to the data, provided in response to a freedom of information request filed by +972 Magazine, Local Call, and the Movement for Freedom of Information, the censor barred more news stories from publication in 2018 than in almost any other year this decade.

The number of stories published with censor intervention also spiked, as the percentage of censored stories in 2018 was higher than in every year since 2011. Only 2014 — the year of Israel’s last war in Gaza — saw similarly substantial censorship of the press, when the IDF Censor partially or fully redacted 3,122 news stories, and completely barred 597 of them from being published.

The spike in censorship compared to 2017 is significant: in the last year, the IDF Censor prevented the publication of 92 more articles than it did in the year prior, while it partially or fully redacted an additional 625 stories. Over the past eight years, the censor has prohibited a total of 2,661 news stories from seeing the light of day.

All media outlets in Israel 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 until today. These regulations allow the censor to fully or partially redact an article, while barring media outlets from indicating in any way whether a story has been altered. Over recent years, however, more and more journalists in Israel have been using the term “censor approved” in their reporting.

In recent years, the censor has tried to expand the scope of its power to review information prior to publication into the online world, including by notifying independent blogs and digital publications, like +972 Magazine, that they must submit certain articles for review. (Read more about censorship and +972.)

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 Israeli media outlets. In 2018, journalists submitted 10,938 stories for review, fewer than in the previous year (11,035). The decline in the number of stories filed, coupled with the rise in the censor’s intervention, could indicate that editors are learning what is or is not of actual importance to the censor, leading them to be more selective in what they file. Alternatively, the decline may be a result of media outlets publishing fewer articles on security-related issues.

While the IDF Censor does not reveal which stories it has been most active in redacting, it is likely that the significant rise in censorship last year is linked to the Israeli army’s activities, both overt and covert, against Iran in Syria and Lebanon, or articles on the undercover Israeli unit in the Gaza Strip exposed by Hamas last November.

An employee at the Israel State Archives looks at classified documents related to the Yemenite Children Affair, at the Israel State Archives offices in Jerusalem, December 22, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An employee at the Israel State Archives looks at classified documents related to the Yemenite Children Affair, at the Israel State Archives offices in Jerusalem, December 22, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel is the only country in the democratic world where journalists and publications are legally required to submit their reporting for review prior to publication, and the only one where that censorship can be criminally enforced. Furthermore, the Israeli military censor’s powers extend beyond news outlets to include authority to review before publication and censor books and items in the State Archives.

In 2018, Israeli publishers submitted 83 books to the Israeli army censor, out of which only 34 were approved without any intervention. Meanwhile, the censor partially or fully redacted 49 books last year. In 2017, 84 books were submitted to the IDF Censor, 53 of which were redacted, while 31 were approved.

Over the past few years, the IDF Censor has also reviewed documents in the State Archives, supposedly as part of an attempt to open these files to the public. State Archive staff members have always used their own discretion regarding which files to release and which could potentially pose a threat to Israel’s foreign standing or national security. In 2018, the State Archive submitted only 2,908 files for review, compared to 7,770 in 2016 and 5,213 in 2017. The IDF Censor, however, refuses to disclose the number of documents with which it has interfered.

The IDF Censor is excluded from the Freedom of Information Law, and is thus not at all obligated to publish its figures. The scope of the information shared has also changed over the years. Before Brig. Gen. Ariella Ben Avraham took office as Chief Censor in 2015, we used to receive answers as to just how many archival material was redacted by the censorship, as well as to how often censors demanded the removal or alteration of news stories that had already been published without being submitted for review.

In a 2018 letter, Brig. Gen. Ben Avraham wrote that these figures are no longer collected, and can therefore no longer be shared with the public. In response, Racheli Edri, executive director of the Movement for the Freedom of Information, requested that the censor keep track of these figures and release them in the future, but never heard back. These details were not included in the latest set of figures released by the censor, in 2019.

“Everybody knows that, in this day and age, the entire institution of the military censorship needs to be somehow revised,” said Edri. “As we try to understand the scope of the censorship’s work and redactions, we turn to them with an unwritten understanding that they will indeed reply. However, when they don’t share information with us, our tools for appealing their decision are very weak, to non-existent.”

In a sense, this creates a sort of dual censorship, Edri explained: “First, they censor, and second, they keep away information about the scope of censorship.”

Beyond the direct harm to freedom of the press – with 22,371 stories over the past eight years that were disqualified entirely or in part – it is likely to assume that the mere existence of a censor creates a chilling effect. Israeli journalists know what issues they cannot report on, and often simply avoid them to begin with.

This is in addition to another very different type of self-censorship that we see in Israel, of issues that the IDF Censor does allow reporting on, but that are kept out of the news cycle based on considerations of ratings and public opinion. For example, a recent study by Jewish-Arab civil rights NGO Sikkuy and media watchdog organization The Seventh Eye reveals that candidates of Arab parties running in the upcoming elections receive almost no coverage in mainstream media outlets, even though they represent almost 20 percent of the population.

Editor’s note: In accordance with our legal obligation, this article was sent to the IDF Censor for review prior to publication. We are not allowed to disclose whether and where it was censored.