How free a press can a democracy allow itself when it lives permanently on the edge of war? This question has been revived with the closure of an Israeli newspaper last week for three days at the order of the nation's military censor.
The daily Hadashot was shut down for a relatively trivial breach: its revelation that the Israeli Defense Ministry had set up a commission of inquiry into the charges that two of the four Arabs killed after hijacking an Israeli bus last month had been shot after their capture. The paper had flouted the law that calls for submission to the censor of all material related to military matters.
It was the first time in more than 30 years that an Israeli newspaper has been closed for censorship violations, not including the Arab newspapers of east Jerusalem which are often shut down for publishing articles that might incite violence.
Under emergency rules dating from the time of the British mandate, all articles dealing with security matters must be submitted to the military censor. Material subject to censorship was later expanded to include oil, immigration from certain countries, and foreign loans. The Israeli press and public almost unanimously accept the need for some sort of censorship in view of the perceptible danger of providing enemies with useful military information.
''I feel more comfortable having a knowledgeable censor going over my copy than having to rely on my own sense of what might or might not be useful to the enemy,'' an Israeli journalist says.
The problem begins when the censor extends his reach to the area of ''public morale.'' Members of parliament charged several years ago, for instance, that the censor had banned publication of the fact that an Army officer had been convicted for murdering Arab prisoners during the 1978 incursion into Lebanon. The fear is that the authorities will extend censorship to the political sphere in the name of the ''national interest.''
In 1975, the Labor government tried to make censorship applicable to top-secret communications between Israel and foreign governments and to secret meetings between Israeli diplomats and representatives of countries with which Israel has no relations. The Israeli Journalists' Association and the Foreign Press Association in Israel condemned the move, declaring it would do more harm to Israel than any possible leak would. The government eventually backed down.