Tel Aviv — Israel’s confirmation last week that former soldier-journalist Anat Kam leaked about 2,000 top secret documents to the Haaretz reporter Ori Blau touched off a debate over press freedoms in the Jewish state.
But instead of uniting journalists against the government and the security services, the controversy has sparked infighting among the Israeli media that has muddied the waters regarding who is at fault.
Did Haaretz do enough to protect Kam? Shouldn’t the journalist and the newspaper return documents Kam stole from the army? Is Blau a legitimate target for investigation? How did Kam smuggle out the information?
After partially lifting a months-long, court-ordered gag order — which originally drew criticism to the case — the state said last week that it wants to charge Kam on espionage charges that carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Kam, a 23-year-old reporter for an online publication who has been under house arrest for months, provided documents that were the foundation for a 2008 exposé in Haaretz. The piece charged the Israeli military with carrying out a targeted assassination on West Bank militants from the Islamic Jihad that violated rulings by Israel’s High Court.
The exposé —which was approved at the time by Israel’s military censor — was based on minutes of planning meetings among top generals who allegedly gave the green light to assassinate two Islamic Jihad operatives identified by soldiers along with a “maximum of two others.” Israel’s courts have ruled out targeted killings if there’s an opportunity for arrest. Israel’s attorney general denied any wrongdoing.
“[The Haaretz article] is a blood libel,” said Ben Dror Yemini, the opinion page editor of the rival Maariv newspaper and a member of the Israel Press Council, a nongovernmental panel of journalists and public figures.
Yemini asserted that Israel’s meticulous planning of the assassinations and orders to avoid bystander casualties had no parallel elsewhere in the world. “But if you read Haaretz, you think Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinian people.”
According to excerpts made public from Kam’s police interrogation, she saw herself as a whistleblower who would eventually be exonerated by history after exposing alleged Israeli war crimes.
A Tel Aviv district court judge wrote that he was stunned at the depth of the security lapse at the army’s Central Command headquarters that allowed for the theft of the documents.
This week attention shifted to a standoff between the Shin Bet internal security service and Haaretz over Blau — who is currently in London — to return the stolen documents. Israel’s defense establishment claims that Kam gave Blau documents that could endanger national security if it fell into the hands of Israel’s enemies.
Under an agreement between the state and the newspaper from last year, Blau returned about 50 classified documents. Now, both sides are accusing the other of violating the deal. While the Shin Bet claims Blau has failed to return all of the stolen documents, Haaretz and Blau have grown concerned that the state is mulling bringing criminal charges against him.
In a Haaretz column, Blau denied a political agenda and alleged that he has been under government surveillance and that his apartment had been broken into by investigators. “Experiences I read about in thriller novels have become the reality of my life,” he wrote. “When it was explained to me that if I return to Israel, I might be silenced forever through an indictment on espionage charges, I decided to fight.”
A group of prominent journalists published a petition this week calling on the state to promise that it won’t prosecute Blau, but the same petition also called on the Haaretz reporter to return the documents.
Ben Caspit, the co-host of a weekend news magazine on Israeli public television and a Maariv political commentator, said the liberal newspaper’s behavior was “outrageous” and that Haaretz and reporter Blau are “the worst side” in the controversy.
Israeli journalists say the newspaper and Blau’s decision to hold onto the stolen documents is jeopardizing an informal unwritten agreement that allows reporters access to leaked classified documents that ordinarily would require criminal prosecution.
“We are worried that in the wake of this incident, this policy will change,” said Danny Zaken, president of the Israeli Journalists’ Association. “We are demanding that Haaretz honor its agreement with the Shin Bet and return the documents.”
Haaretz officials said that the Shin Bet has asked Blau to give up all the classified documents in his possession from years of work, but that the reporter would not do so in order to protect the sources of information.
Zaken and Caspit both accused the newspaper of jeopardizing Kam’s anonymity. Caspit said it was Haaretz’s decision to publish the protocols of the targeted assassination deliberations, while Zaken said the 50 documents returned to the Shin Bet led investigators to Kam.
“They tried to defend their journalists at the beginning [of the investigation] without trying to blur the footprints” leading to Kam, Zaken said.
Mibi Mozer, a lawyer for Haaretz and Blau, said the state demanded the reporter turn over all confidential documents in his possession. Such a demand is “unacceptable,” he told Channel 1 news.
“The military committed a serious blunder,” said Tamar Leibes, a Hebrew University communications professor. “But on the other hand, Blau didn’t protect the immunity of his source. He didn’t live up to his side of the deal [with the Shin Bet]. With all due respect to freedom of the press, I don’t think that this is a good example.”
Michael Sfard, a human rights lawyer who pressed the state to follow up Blau’s exposé with an investigation, said the Shin Bet’s threat to indict Blau is a troubling sign. He argued that Israeli reporters should be defending Blau rather than attacking him and Haaretz for holding onto the documents.
“One can see how thin our democratic layer is,” he said. “This is the same press that can overthrow a prime minister over corruption, but when it comes to state security it’s treated like a poodle.”
Regarding the fate of Kam, Sfard said it will be hard for her to avoid heavy punishment. He said there is no debate that Kam violated the “black letter of the law.”
“But from here to saying she’s a spy and charging her with serious espionage, there’s a long road,” he said. “If that’s grave espionage, what will we do when we really have a spy among us?”
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