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Amid News of an Army Failure, Israeli Press Attacks Censorship


AS details have leaked out about a botched Israeli Army training exercise three weeks ago that killed five soldiers, the affair has turned from personal tragedy, to embarrassment and scandal for military leaders, to a full-blown attack on Israel's pervasive military censorship.

The country's most respected daily newspaper, Haaretz, has pulled out of a longstanding agreement between leading dailies and the military censor, expressing lack of confidence in the system. The chairman of the parliament's Constitutional Law Committee is planning to reform censorship rules.

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The role of the censor, who inspects everything published about the military in Israel, has come under scrutiny since he banned mention of the fact that the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ehud Barak, and his military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Uri Saguy, were present at the fatal exercise at Tselim, in the Negev desert.

Unprecedented leaks from military sources have suggested that the maneuver was apparently a rehearsal for an attack on the Iranian-backed Hizbullah (Party of God) in Lebanon by an elite Army unit that in the past has specialized in behind-the-lines operations such as assassinations.

Suppression of the generals' presence raised suspicions of a coverup, especially since friends of Amiram Levin, the one general found responsible for the accident by a commission of inquiry, began hinting to reporters that others were also to blame.

"The protection of high-ranking officers' reputations and careers most certainly does not come within [the censor's] parameters," said the Jerusalem Post in a recent editorial.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Nov. 23 that details of General Barak's and General Saguy's presence at the exercise had been suppressed so as not to give the impression that there was anything unusual about the maneuver.

But Israeli newspaper editors felt that the censor had gone well beyond his authority, which is to "apply restrictions only when there is near certainty of a real threat to the country's security," in the words of a 1989 High Court ruling.

"We were very convinced that it was not legal to do what they did," complains Haaretz editor Hannoch Marmari.

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The row prompted Mr. Marmari to pull his paper out of an informal arrangement, as old as the state of Israel, between the Army and national daily papers. That agreement provides that the censor will not use his authority to close down the papers for publication of banned material, while the editors forfeit their right to challenge his rulings in the High Court, and instead take their disputes to a secret tribunal.

"We prefer to confront the censor in the High Court if need be, and give up an instrument that seems very inefficient," Marmari says. "The tribunal's judgments are lightweight, and you can bury subjects there."

Critics of the agreement between the censor and the editors, such as Dedi Zucker, chairman of the parliament's Constitutional Law Committee, argue that "it too often violates the basic right to know." He is now drawing up laws to replace the British colonial emergency regulations, introduced in 1945, which the Israeli censor still uses, and to "redefine the balance between democratic needs and military needs ... in favor of the right to know."

Mr. Zucker, a member of the left-wing Meretz Coalition, is also anxious to limit the censor's sphere of action. At present, 41 topics are subject to censorship, ranging from some details of Israel's oil purchases, to its arms sales, to aspects of Jewish immigration, such as activities currently under way in Tajikistan to get Jews out.

Reporting on diplomatic affairs can also be censored, editors complain, when Cabinet discussions of the Middle East peace process, for example, are deemed by the censor to have taken place in the "ministerial defense committee," a body into which the Cabinet can transform itself at any moment, and whose deliberations are secret.

Some editors outside the arrangement with the censor, such as Donny Inbar, who runs the investigative Tel Aviv weekly Hayir, favor legislation. "When there is legislation there is something I can fight," he argues. "When there is a vague agreement, it can turn into self-censorship."

Most newspaper editors, however, are uncomfortable with the prospect of a new law, whatever the shortcomings of the present system. "We are afraid of the Knesset [parliament]," Marmari says. "Even good intentions might not end up good."

All reporters and editors in Israel accept the need for some military censorship, given that the country is still in a state of war with all of its neighbors save Egypt, but the way the rules have been applied in the Tselim case has done as much injury to the Army as to press freedom.

By concealing Barak's and Saguy's presence, the censor has only drawn attention to the nature of the exercise. "Public preoccupation with the concealment of information and its subsequent revelation increases interest in the circumstances, and thus the security damage," says Shlomo Gazit, a retired general.

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