Haaretz and Government Censorship

One of the most impactful parts of this trip was the time spent with Israeli journalists. I was especially taken by the Haaretz newspaper team in Tel Aviv.

Their building is hard to find; small, unassuming, and slightly removed from the city. We shuffled off of the bus, through the glass doors and took a moment to admire enormous paintings of serious-looking female Knesset members on the wall. We were greeted by editor-in-chief Aluf Benn, who holds a MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, and news editor Noa Landau. The normal routine commenced: we poured ourselves coffee and scrambled for a seat around the long, boardroom-style table. The room was just around the corner from the bomb shelter they used during the Gaza war this summer.

Haaretz is Israel’s oldest newspaper. It’s printed in English and Hebrew, in Berliner format, with a significant online readership and pay-wall. It’s also published with the international version of the New York Times, which we would split between at least five of us each morning at breakfast.

Haaretz covered the war with a skepticism that’s rare in Israel. Benn explained that Israeli readers expect you to be “first Jewish, then Israeli, then a journalist.” This expectation hardly met up with critical op-eds that Haaretz produced about Palestinian casualties this summer.

One of their reporters, Gideon Levy, became an especially controversial figure for writing a negative op-ed about Israeli fighter pilots; the most highly-trained, educated, and admired group in Israel Defense Forces.

Benn said they lost readers for the critical content, but again, they’re “never part of the choir”. Public opinion in Israel, for the most part, is supportive of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing party the Likud. Haaretz has had a strong liberal voice, which Benn said plays a similar role as the New York Times in American journalism.

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Journalists in Israel do not enjoy the same freedom of the press as Americans do. There is no Israeli constitution, therefore a thin layer of protection. Editors submit all copy that could be relevant to national security through a system called the Military Press and Communications Censorship.

Resident and visiting military and security correspondents in Israel have to sign a document that certifies that they will submit content before publishing for the Censor’s approval.

Benn explained the process, but we later received copy of the agreement from the government press office. It says that all written material, photographs, and recordings “dealing with the security and defense matters intended for transmission abroad”. This task slowed down papers like Haaretz during the Gaza war this summer. Noa Landau often heads up this process for Haaretz, and explained how it can keep a breaking story from being printed quickly.

The point of the censorship is to safeguard Israeli national security. It prevents journalists from printing something that could put the country at risk. In that sense, Benn didn’t seem bothered by the censorship process because he said the system also puts a burden of responsibility on the government. Once they’re cleared by the Censor’s office, a journalist is free from military libel issues. In the US, of course, the paper takes a risk in printing sensitive security information, and might face legal issues later.

Correspondents who leave to go abroad are also expected to present all pictures and reports they intend to take with them that in any way relate to national security. Once they’ve submitted their material in an envelope, it gets stamped by the Censor’s office in the presence of the correspondent.

The Censor’s office also has procedures for international transmission of urgent news. They require prior presentation only of messages to “be sent abroad which contain reference to the defense establishment of the State, the security of the State or the territories administered by the Israel Defense Forces”. In times of war, Haaretz made frequent reference to the IDF, and had to go through this process, which Benn and Landau did not seem thrilled about.

A spokesman for the IDF, who we met at their unit in Jerusalem, seemed very aware of the power of journalism, especially pictures, to influence the world. He called the recent war a foggy situation and noted that sometimes photographs “take over facts”. For this reason, many of us wondered if censorship was always fair or necessary. The question remains unanswered.

Haaretz has continued to make an impression on me months after we left the country. As a student, I often resent their pay wall but still look to their paper for op-eds and a look into what’s happening in the Middle East.