Interview with Israel's Chief Censor: 'I Will Censor Anything That Will Be Useful to the Enemy'

Israel prides itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East, but the country also has a controversial practice of censoring reporting on military and intelligence issues. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, the country's chief censor discusses her office's work and defends its practices.

Israeli chief censor Sima Vaknin-Gil: "Some of them are even more security-oriented than we are at the censor's office." Zoom
AP

Israeli chief censor Sima Vaknin-Gil: "Some of them are even more security-oriented than we are at the censor's office."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Israel claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East. At the same time, there are things that seem to contradict democratic values, like the country's military censor.

Sima Vaknin-Gil: This is a common misconception. We are not a military unit. If you go to our examining room, you will see mainly civilians. We do not belong at all to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The censor is based in the IDF, but we work under the auspices of the State of Israel.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You are wearing the uniform of a colonel in the Israeli Army, but the chief of staff is not your commander?

Vaknin-Gil: The chief of staff does not appoint the censor, he cannot fire the censor and he does not influence his work. It is the defense minister who appoints the censor. But from the moment he assumes his position, the censor's decisions are only subordinated to the High Court of Justice.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In criminal court cases the principle is this: If in doubt, back the defendant. Is the principle in your work that, if there is any doubt, you support state security and not the publication?

Vaknin-Gil: In 1988, the High Court of Justice laid forth an extremely rigid test. In order to censor a publication, there has to be an "imminent certainty of actual harm to state security." That same ruling mentions that in any case in which there is a direct conflict between the freedom of the press and state security, then state security will prevail. But our approach is very liberal. In the past, I served in intelligence -- and I wish that our enemies would publish some of the things we approve; it would serve me greatly.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How can a specific publication endanger state security?

Vaknin-Gil: Our enemy is the intelligence officer sitting in Damascus and reviewing the Israeli media and Internet. I will censor anything that comes across my desk that I believe will be useful to the enemy for purposes of gathering valuable information. It can be one letter, one word, one line. At times, I regret, it can be more -- but we aim to keep our intervention to a minimum.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How many items do you receive and how many of them do you censor?

Vaknin-Gil: We receive thousands per month. An item can be one headline in a newspaper or a complex article which might take several months to review. Out of the thousands of items, 80-85 percent are returned without being touched. Out of the remaining articles, between 10-15 percent are returned to the publisher with what we call "specific disqualifications." Often it is only one sentence that we ban. Only up to 1 percent of all the items submitted to the censor are totally disqualified.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What can a journalist do if he thinks you banned information in an article for no good reason?

Vaknin-Gil: According to a memorandum of understanding signed by the Defense Minister and the Editors Committee of the media in Israel, the first step is an arbitration committee, also known as the "Committee of Three." It is headed by a representative of the public -- in most cases a judge. On one side, the judge has a media professional -- always from a different form of media -- at his or her side. For example, if the arbitration were to involve a newspaper, then the member of the committee would be from radio. In most cases, the media professional favors freedom of expression. The third element in this arbitration committee is a representative of one of the security institutions -- who, by definition, does not need to see things the way I do. But, of course, I have an easier time with him because we are both wearing army uniforms.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How often are you taken to arbitration?

Vaknin-Gil: It used to be between six to eight times a year. But in the past 4.5 years, since I have been in my position, it has only been 1.5 times a year -- which is also an indicator of the degree to which we are balanced. There are generally two types of instances that can lead to arbitration. Either we disqualified an item and the media didn't like the decision. Or if I tell you not to publish something and you do anyway and I decide to seek punishment. The penalties are really minor: They can include reprimands or fines. But the best deterrent effect is the fact that the media in Israel doesn't like to be perceived as breaching censorship.

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About Sima Vaknin-Gil
Einat Keinan
Colonel Sima Vaknin-Gil, 44, has been Israel's chief military censor for the past four and a half years. She and 30 employees determine whether information gathered by journalists poses a threat to state security and if it can be published in the media or not. Every journalist who works in Israel is required to submit any report that deals with military or intelligence issues to the censorship agency prior to publication.

Vaknin-Gil previously served as an intelligence officer in the Israeli Air Force. She graduated with a degree in Middle East Studies at Tel Aviv University and completed a master's degree at the Israeli Security Academy.


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