The congenial censor

The Chief IDF Censor has ushered in a new era of openness.

The congenial censor  (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN )
The congenial censor
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN )
As Brig. Gen. Sima Waknin Gil recalls, her dream of working in military intelligence began when she was a small girl.
It was accompanied by an unquenchable curiosity for all things scary or different. To make certain that she could remember those scary or different things, Gil, now Israel’s chief military censor, always carried a notebook and pen.
“Then I would see if I could analyze what I saw,” Gil tells The Jerusalem Report.
“I looked for things that were out of the ordinary to see if I could understand what was behind them.”
That early childhood curiosity led her, as a teenager, to revel in the Hasamba children’s adventure novels and other similar mystery tales.
Forty-three years later, Gil, still fascinated with intelligence work, is in her seventh year in the powerful post, deciding what local and foreign journalists residing in the country are allowed to publish – and what they are not.
She seems miscast: rather than toughtalking, stentorian, yet revealing little, as one might imagine a chief censor to be, Gil is gentle, soft-spoken, and eager to talk about her job endlessly. At 47, with short-cropped gray hair and an obvious enthusiasm in her voice, she appears diminutive behind her desk in a Tel Aviv office building.
Fighting battles with aggressive journalists at home, she faces an equally perplexing task trying to beat back critics abroad, who argue that the very existence of an Israel Defense Forces censor’s office makes Israeli claims to be a democracy disingenuous. “Explaining censorship in a liberal democracy is hard,” admits Gil. Explaining it at all marks a change. Her four predecessors felt no need to explain or justify censorship, only to enforce it.
It was far more difficult for Israel to run a censor’s office that would try to win worldwide approval in the 1950s and 1960s when security officials feared that even the slightest revelation about the IDF would help its enemies: “I don’t want to say censorship was draconian then but the whole concept was different from today,” says Gil. 
“The concept was, ‘We will do anything to protect State security.’” “Doing anything” meant barring journalists from writing about the IDF, or and the Mossad. On May 30, 1950, The Jerusalem Post wrote about the IDF but did so almost in code: “The air force today celebrated the second anniversary of the appearance of its first fighter planes in the skies.” 
There was no mention of where the air force celebrated or of the type of fighter planes flown. Still, the censor had been unusually generous for that time.
A 1966 agreement between editors and the censor, a tit-for-tat arrangement, had journalists promising to abide by censorship on security topics while political issues, opinions, or assessments would not be barred. But the censor still felt compelled to prohibit articles that might damage army morale.
After Egypt and Syria launched surprise attacks against Israel in 1973, journalists were furious with the censor. They accused him of preventing journalists from publishing details on the early-warning signs that Egypt was preparing to attack Israeli forces in Sinai in October 1973. The journalists complained bitterly that had the censor exercised less restraint, the Yom Kippur War might have been prevented.
Lighter touch
Even though journalists could not prove that publication of their stories might have avoided war, no longer could the censor keep them on a tight leash. Moreover, from 1973 onward, with Israel’s existence no longer in imminent danger, the censor had more and more justification to adopt a lighter touch with incoming articles.
In 1989, that lighter touch won Supreme Court backing when the court ruled sympathetically to journalists in a case involving Ha’ir editor Meir Schnitzer that the censor could not prevent the publication of an article critical of the Mossad chief on grounds that state security might be harmed. In his ruling, Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak wrote that “only in exceptional and special cases,” when there was “near certainty” that genuine damage to Israeli security would be caused, should the censor forbid publication.
Given the journalists’ uproar in 1973 and Barak’s “near certainty” edict, Gal contends that the cause for the newly transparent censorship lies more with these historical events than her personal judgment about what journalists can publish.
One of five children born in Kiryat Yam near Haifa to a Turkish-born mother and Moroccan-born father, Brig. Gen. Gil acquired her taste for curiosity from parents who stressed Zionism and learning as the two guiding principles of life in Israel. “For them,” she notes, “learning was a tool, a vehicle for promotion in the country. And, of course, we were also supposed to do everything we could for the country’s safety. “Serving as a soldier in the air control unit of the Israel Air Force, one of the few jobs open to women at the time, Gil then took a six-month officer’s course, serving more than 10 years in Air Force Intelligence before creating and heading an officer’s school for Air Force combat support tasks from 1995 to 1999.
Along the way, she picked up an undergraduate degree from Tel Aviv University in political science and Middle East studies and a Master’s degree from the National Defense College in national defense studies. She is now embarking on a doctorate, planning to write her thesis on how censorship can balance the needs of state security with freedom of expression, the anchor of a democracy.
One of 30 candidates for the chief censor’s post, Gil won the competition in 2005. Why would so many apply? “Because,” says Gil, “you know almost everything that happens in Israel because you have to defend it from being published.” She wears an IDF uniform, but notes that it is “misleading,” because the censor’s unit is a civilian department despite getting its budget from the IDF.
Under the “near certainty” edict, Gil and her 34-member team ride a wave of openness that permits 85 percent of stories submitted to the censor to go untouched. Another 13 percent are modified lightly and two percent are barred from publication. In the 1950s and 1960s the chief censor identified 61 subjects that might be blue-penciled compared to 36 topics today.
Reflecting a new restraint that would have been unimaginable in the early days of statehood, Gil recently permitted extensive publication of the so-called “Harpaz affair.”
The episode concerned Col. (res.) Boaz Harpaz, a former Military Intelligence officer who allegedly forged a document detailing a strategy of how to get former Southern Command head Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant appointed chief of staff. Bowing to democratic impulses within Israeli society, Gil, despite believing that publishing “Harpaz” might have exposed covert operations, allowed the story to see light.
Just as with the Harpaz affair, with regard to the public debate over whether and when Israel should attack Iran to crush its nuclear efforts, Gil has approved full coverage of the debate. In the past, such a debate – which has included fiery comments from former security agency chiefs – would have been censored on the grounds of assuring that Israel retained the element of surprise in an attack against Iran.
“The only thing I will not allow,” says Gil, “is if you come to me with an article in which you say exactly how the Air Force will attack.”
It is not just public debate affecting the military that passes censorship today. Articles detailing military strategy, equipment such as the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, and IDF personnel reach the Israeli media regularly. Today we know the names of many of the IDF top brass and the heads of both the Mossad and the Shin Bet.
Conventional wisdom has it that the advent of digital technology, especially the Internet and smart phones, has made it harder for the censor’s office to act against journalists. But, to Gil, that is a myth because of the new, more congenial attitudes coming out of her office. “I don’t have to stop anyone from there,” she says.
All fine and good, but what if a journalist were to blog that the country had many nuclear weapons? In the past, given the nation’s policy of ambiguity, the censor has come down hard on anyone writing from Israel that it possessed such armaments.
Gil could arrange charges that could get the blogger 15 years in jail – a sanction that has never been imposed. Today, with an eye on that amibuity, Gil will negotiate the language a journalist may use in writing about Israel’s nuclear capability.
How does Israeli censorship stack up in 2012 with the practice in other countries? Certainly it is far milder than in such authoritarian regimes as Saudi Arabia and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Gil argues, where, without freedom of expression, there is no need for censorship offices.
As for America, despite its profession of being democratic, Gil contends that the US practices a far more strident censorship than Israel does: after all, the US in 2003 “embedded” the media to prevent journalists from wandering in a war zone, and during that same war barred the televising of funerals of US soldiers killed in Iraq. Less remembered but equally stark was the case in 2010 of the Pentagon burning 9,500 copies of Operation Dark Heart, a book that it claimed harmed national security.
In the new atmosphere of openness, Gil sometimes confronts journalists with whom she is willing to negotiate rather than ban their stories outright. “Some of them,” she says resignedly, “know things that I as the censor don’t know.” She is open to negotiation: “You can persuade me to do things. You can try to show me that I’m wrong.”
One example occurred in 2006 when Israel feared that a miscalculation by either side might trigger possible Israeli- Syrian violence. When a Yedioth Ahronoth journalist obtained highly classified information on a planned intelligence operation in Israel’s north, the censor did not ban its publication, as had happened just before the 1973 war. Instead, getting IDF intelligence officers to reformulate the original leak, Gil preserved the journalist’s “scoop” and prevented imminent harm to state security.
All this open-mindedness sometimes goes too far in Gil’s view, as when the IDF releases information that she wishes had been kept secret. That was the case in 2010 when the IDF spokesman announced new details about the satellite unit of the IDF intelligence branch. To Gil, those details gave Syrian and Hizballah intelligence officers a rare gift.
But she allowed the IDF news release to get into print.
Perhaps the most severe test of censorship in recent years related to the case of an IDF conscript, Anat Kamm, who supplied military secrets to Haaretz journalist Uri Blau. Kamm’s leak suggested that the military had defied a court ruling against assassinating wanted militants in the West Bank, who might otherwise have been taken alive and arrested. Gil contends that, despite IDF claims that too many military secrets had been exposed, the Israeli public had a right to know about the case. “Even if Uri Blau thinks the army did wrong,” she argues, “I cannot prohibit it from being published because the debate is worthy.”
Will Sima Waknin Gil’s effort to foster more moderate censorship gain new friends among critics of press restrictions? Probably it will not. But it may trigger thoughts of replacing the word “censor,” with all its pejorative intonations, with a new kinder, gentler term. As for what that new term might be, Gil acknowledges that she has no idea. But she continues to search for the word.