Incoming phone calls from unidentified numbers usually spell trouble. The call I got some six years ago, on a steamy summer afternoon in Tel Aviv, was no different.
The person at the other end of the line introduced himself as “Shayke,” a somewhat old-fashioned nickname in Hebrew. In a deep voice he explained he is an employee of the Shabak, Israeli Security Agency (ISA). I was confident a friend with a bad sense of humor was teasing me, but he assured me he actually works for the well-known agency. He then asked me to meet him at his office, somewhere around Tel Aviv. He wanted me there as soon as possible. “I can’t tell you what it’s all about,” he said, “Just come here.”
Later that day, while I was leaning out of his office window, smoking one cigarette after another, I understood that he had summoned me because of my work as a journalist exposing stories related to the actions of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). In particular, his summons was due to one investigation I had published almost a year earlier, about the IDF’s “targeted assassinations” policy. In that article, which ran under the headline “License to Kill,” I revealed that the Israeli military didn’t follow Israeli Supreme Court regulations for such operations. The article was based on leaked top-secret military documents and interviews. It also revealed the views of Gen. Yair Naveh, former head of IDF’s Central Command. “Leave me alone and don’t bother me with Supreme Court guidelines,” he said to me.
That article didn’t change the way the IDF operates, but it sure changed the course of my life and that of my source. The ISA, police and military joined forces and began to target us. It took time, but eventually they arrested former IDF solider Anat Kamm, the one who handed me hundreds of classified documents. Both of us stood trial under the Espionage Act, in separate proceedings. Kamm was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison (later reduced to a 3.5 years) for stealing and handing me the documents, which were the basis for several articles I published in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, where I was an investigative reporter.
I was indicted for possessing classified information. After admitting to doing so, I signed a plea bargain and was sentenced to four months in prison. I became the first Israeli journalist to be convicted of such a felony and served my time doing community service at a daycare center for the elderly.
Almost seven years have passed since that article was published. Years in which the Israeli population has shifted further to the nationalistic right; years in which laws aiming at limiting freedom of speech and expression have been promoted; years in which exposing information to the public, especially information about the IDF, became harder and less common. When I wonder if it would even be possible to publish “License to Kill” today, the answer is far from clear.
It’s easy to see how Jews in America might not see things this way. They look out at the media landscape in Israel and see a robust debate, a real give-and-take about the actions of the Israeli military, for instance, or the issue of settlement expansion, or the excessive spending habits of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara on, of all things, ice cream. There’s Haaretz on the left, the Jerusalem Post on the right. They look at The New York Times and see stories that quote liberally from Israeli media on both sides of the aisle, so to speak.
In fact, it seems as if some in the media in Israel, backed by some politicians, have taken an exit ramp off the free-press highway. They took a wrong turn and are traveling down a dangerous path. It’s hard to foresee any change. If anything, the results of the recent election threaten to worsen the situation.
In 2012 Ayelet Shaked led Israel Sheli (My Israel), a nationalistic-Zionist organization that operated mainly in social media. In a speech Shaked gave back then, she said she “dreams” about fair media that would cover the “occupation” of south Tel Aviv by “illegal African infiltrators.” She desired a media that wouldn’t interview “enemies” and would define IDF soldiers as “our soldiers.”
A few weeks ago Shaked was appointed as Israel’s justice minister in Netanyahu’s new narrow right-wing coalition. Such remarks, given by a top Israeli cabinet minister, suggest the way many Israelis, and decision-makers, want and expect journalists to act.
Shaked is preaching to the choir. Take, for example, Avri Gilad, a journalist who started his career at IDF Radio in the early 1980s. He was a bad-boy kind of journalist: young, funny, full of chutzpah, and not one to be shy or intimidated by authority.
Gilad is now the anchor of a leading daily program on Israel’s Channel 20, a niche channel with aspirations to become a leading one. Last month he interviewed Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz, the IDF spokesperson. Viewers that expected tough questions were disappointed. Gilad expressed his lack of comfort with the fact journalists “know all” about what happened during the last war in Gaza. “Wouldn’t it be better,” he asked, “if the public wouldn’t have all the information?”
Listening to Gilad one could wrongfully assume that the Israeli public really does get all the information it deserves and needs. That is not the case.
Not all Israelis — and surely not all Americans — realize that all news stories about military activities are subject to military censorship. That means authorities have pre-approved every item the public receives.
Moreover, most correspondents have a cozy relationship with the military. In order to get access to information, they must go through a security clearance and accreditation process controlled by the very same organization they cover. Another problem is the happily embraced self-censorship practiced and promoted by Gilad and the like.
Yinon Magal is a new member at the Knesset, chosen in the last elections. Until recently he was the editor-in-chief of Walla, one of Israel’s leading digital news platforms. He jumped from his influential journalistic post directly to a spot on the list of the religious-national Jewish Home Party. As a journalist he had firm views on the information his readers should receive. During last summer’s war in Gaza he fired a TV critic whose columns were considered too “lefty.” When Magal was asked about it, he replied by saying that he is “a human, a Jew, an Israeli and then a journalist,” and in that order he functions as a journalist. “During war, I need to serve primarily my readers, the local public,” he explained.
The military correspondent for the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, Amos Harel, is worried. In a recent article he wrote that the media coverage the IDF receives would make any other state-run organization green with envy. “The military provides the media the stories they — and presumably the public — want: an endless [string of] emotional, heroic stories. … It is hard to seriously and honestly discuss faults and mistakes when the public discourse is that the IDF is a mistakes-proof (organization) immune from criticism.”
But what may be the most worrisome development are recent efforts by Netanyahu to strengthen his control over the media. In the agreements he signed with members of his new coalition, the prime minister insisted on having full control over all media-related legislation. “While pretending he is operating for a free media market Netanyahu is actually on a personal vendetta,” wrote Nati Tucker, TheMarker newspaper’s media reporter. “The reforms he plans seem aimed at restricting power of various media outlets,” Tucker explained.
Replying to questions via email, Tucker told me that the “media market should be open to competition without direct involvement of politicians,” adding that changes should be promoted and handled professionally.
Oren Persico is a media critic from the Seventh Eye, an influential NGO for discussing and criticizing the Israeli media. I asked him about Netanyahu’s vision for the media. “Netanyahu wants a media market he can control,” he told me via email. “He already has two newspapers under his complete control, the daily free tabloid Israel Hayom and the weekly broadsheet Makor Rishon, both owned by his friend and patron Sheldon Adelson. … The two commercial channels, Channel 2 and Channel 10, are also weakened by an uncertain future, which makes them vulnerable. This is exactly the atmosphere Netanyahu enjoys. He would like to see all of the independent/critical media weakened and launch more media outlets that fully support him.”
The next move, Persico predicts, will probably be a pro-Netanyahu TV news channel. “The TV regulators in Israel,” he notes, “are already discussing options that will allow for a channel like this to exist.”
Uri Blau is an Israeli investigative reporter specializing in military and political affairs, corruption and transparency. He was a 2014 Nieman Fellow for Journalism at Harvard University and is currently based in the U.S. Follow him on Twitter: @uri_blau