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Jun 08 2012

When a Journalist Becomes a Pain in the System’s Backside

The International Press Institute (IPI) reiterated its support this week for Israeli journalist Uri Blau of Ha’aretz, after Israel’s attorney general Yehuda Weinstein declared Blau was to be indicted on charges of possessing classified military documents.

IPI’s Acting Deputy Director Anthony Mills said: “The planned indictment of Uri Blau would set a highly unfortunate precedent for press freedom and democracy in Israel.  Journalists should have the right to use leaked documents as sources for their stories when these stories serve the public interest.  We are highly concerned about the ramifications of this decision on the right of the Israeli public to be informed about the actions of state institutions.  We urge Israeli authorities to reconsider and drop all charges against Mr. Blau immediately.”

The affair broke about two years ago while Blau was traveling in China with his partner. Security services forces broke into his flat in search of documents. Anat Kam, a young journalist, was arrested and accused of leaking 2000 secret military documents to Blau, while she was still a solider in active service. Blau used some of the documents to expose, in 2008, a system within which the security services lied to the high court of justice and authorized assassinations of Palestinians suspected of insurgency, while knowing that it was possible to arrest them.

The story itself stirred no outcry in the existing atmosphere in Israel. Blau had sent it, as required in the case of any story with “security implications” to military censorship, which authorized its publication. But the leak was the last straw for the Israeli military, after years of undesirable (from the system’s point of view) exposures by Blau. They decided to go after the journalist and after his source.

Anat Kam was put on trial for charges of no less than espionage related offences, and has recently started serving her sentence of 4.5 years in prison.

When the affair broke Uri Blau came from China to London and stayed there for a few months, as advised by his newspaper Ha’aretz. While here he refused to be interviewed or write for newspapers, despite many pleas and offers. Some friends thought he should stay away from Israel for years, and restart his career in Europe, but he couldn’t bear the idea. “I’m not a dissident”, he said to me. “I’m not even particularly political. I am a journalist, I work at exposing the truth. If I know that the security services are lying to the high court of justice it is my job, and my duty as a citizen, to make this information public”.

As if I needed telling. I have known Uri Blau since he came to work in the Jerusalem local paper Kol Hair, as a police correspondent, and later as a correspondent for military affair. I was the paper’s news editor, and he worked on my team. He was 21 years old, fresh from his military service. It was clear from the first moment that he belonged to that unique species known as an investigative reporter. Those for who a locked door, a secret whispered, a secret kept, are all like red flags to a bull.

And there were many secrets lurking around, which, not many journalists wanted to expose. The second Palestinian uprising, known as the Intifadah, just kicked in, suicide bombings carried out by Palestinians were at their height, and not many Israelis wanted to know about alleged atrocities committed by the army in the West Bank and Gaza.

Most Israeli journalists who cover military affairs rely on Generals as their main sources, but no General would speak to the young scruffy journalist with the long unruly hair. One General even called me to advise me, as an editor, that if my military correspondent wishes to gain “access” he should “tidy himself up”. I said I did not consider it my business to interfere in my correspondent’s hair styling (as I commented here a few weeks ago, things are a bit different one’s reporters have to appear on screen).

But Blau found his sources elsewhere, among low ranking conscripts, closer to him in age, who confided in him. He became an expert at gaining access to classified documents. We used to publish the documents themselves in the newspaper alongside the stories because it helped authenticate them to our suspicious readership, as the IDF spokesperson denied every story we published automatically. Ha’aretz adopted this method when Blau had moved to work there in the early 2000s. In hindsight, publishing photocopies of the original documents might have been a grave mistake, as it provoked the army and possibly assisted it in coming after the source, as they have done in Kam’s case.

Blau is not cut out to remain in exile. He sees himself as an Israeli patriot. After a few months of feeling uprooted and disenfranchised, he went back to Israel, to face the music.

Blau is to stand trial for an offence of holding classified documents, an offence which comes in the Israeli penal code under the wide definition of aggregated espionage. Qualifying the work of a journalist, exposing the truth to his own people, as an act of spying, just as equating the actions of his source to spying, are hardly trademarks of a democracy.

In a statement released Thursday, Jerusalem Journalists Association said the decision to indict a journalist for holding classified documents set a dangerous precedent for press freedom in the country and called on all its members to join a protest on Sunday against Blau’s indictment. A few dozens of Blau’s collegues, Israeli journalists, staged a protest in front of the ministry of Justice in Jerusalem, and a petition of support is being circulated among Israeli and international journalists by the online magazine +972.

Naturally, Blau is not the only journalist in the world to be subjected to this kind of treatment by a government and its security services. Such cases are rare in full veteran democracies, but are certainly not unheard of in transitional democracies. In January Reuters reported that Turkey has been holding 100 members of its news media in prison. Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik, investigative journalists were arrested in March 2011 and have been held since in a top-security prison outside Istanbul. They were put on trial for “links to an underground anti-government network”. They were both finally released on bail in March this year, after a year in jail, and the allegations against them are now dwindling. The international outcry raised over their detention seemed to have helped much with their release.

BBC journalist Urunboy Usmonov, a reporter for the BBC World Service, was arrested in June 2011 in Tajikistan and accused of being a member of Hizbut-Tahrir, an extreme Islamist organisation that is banned in the former Soviet republic. He was found guilty despite his staunch denial of all allegations and an international campaign for his release. He has alledgedly been tortured during his pre-trial detention to extract a confession out of him, but he has not yielded.

Torture of journalists is not uncommon. In Bahrain a policewoman is being charged with torturing a female journalist during last year’s crackdown on anti-government protests.

She was accused of torturing the France 24 Bahrain correspondent and Radio Monte Carlo Doualiya, Nazeeha Saeed, when she was arrested on May 22 2011.

In Syria the terror hovering over local journalists’s heads is so dire that the world hardly gets anything reported via traditional journalistic sources. Foreign journalists find it impossible to stay in the country for more than a few days without being detained and deported.

Those are, of course, only a few examples. We have written here a few weeks ago about the importance of local journalists and their vulnerability when governments decide to crack down on them. Some governments are deaf to international pressure and outside criticism. But most governments, especially those who maintain a democratic image, can change their tune when facing a message which says “this is not on”. Organisations such as Pen and the IPI, as well as Amnesty International and others, are instructive in raising a voice against the persecution of journalists.

All of us, journalists, are busy people. But wouldn’t it be good if each of us would pick one cause of a fellow journalist in another country, and raise some hell. After all, raising hell is what we do best.

1 ping

  1. Muckraking is Dead, Long Live Muckraking » GRNLive

    […] « When a Journalist Becomes a Pain in the System’s Backside […]

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