Israeli censors are increasingly requiring bloggers to submit posts for prepublication review. The military has been reaching out to bloggers on Facebook - opening a new social media frontier for an old media law.
Colonel Ariella Ben-Avraham, Israel's chief military censor, has started to officially send personal messages via Facebook to bloggers and users who frequently post criticism of and sensitive information about the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), asking them to submit their items for review prior to publication.
One of these bloggers is Yossi Gurvitz, who runs the page "George's Friends" - referring to George Orwell - a "blog for social, political and media criticism."
Gurvitz told DW that the military censor had informed him via Facebook that officials "must see posts and status updates" that he writes about the IDF and the security establishment ahead of time.
The blogger said he initially thought the email was a hoax, as the profile from which the message was sent was completely empty, aside from the colonel's name and photo.
It was only when Gurvitz learned that other bloggers and pages had received similar messages that he decided to respond.
Gurvitz stressed that he does not intend to comply with the demand and is going to see whether there are any legal steps he can take. "I am now discussing all possibilities with my lawyers," he said.
A post Gurvitz wrote about the message on Facebook has received thousands of likes and hundreds of shares and comments, varying from "I hate you, but what the hell?" to "this country is pure fascism" to offers to publish his information abroad and thus avoid the need to pass items through the censor.
On Twitter, many users, activists and even politicians have called the censor's move illegal and chilling, writing that that it threatens freedom of the press.
"This is simply unacceptable, but I cannot say I'm surprised," the author of a popular long-running anti-occupation blog told DW, asking to remain anonymous because he feared that IDF censors might target him, too. "Not only that we still have this archaic body called 'military censorship' - let's put that aside - but having them sending messages to people on Facebook with requests to submit posts for review? I mean, does anyone even understand what this means?"
For many, the message to Gurvitz is just the latest sign of creeping censorship that has gone far beyond national security and now seems to cover cultural content in Israel, as well. Elad Hen, the editor of the defunct socialist magazine Hevra (Society), received the same message from the censor on the magazine's still-running Facebook page "but chose to ignore it."
Constant state of emergengy
IDF censorship falls under the 1945 Defense (Emergency) Regulations, which require media outlets to submit requested materials for review prior to publication. This usually covers reports concerning the army - its operations, members and troop numbers, for example - and any kind of information that officials say might represent a serious threat to the country.
In theory, this law applies only when Israel declares a state of emergency - but that designation has governed the country every day since its establishment in 1948.
Media outlets in Israel are required to submit any sensitive information about the army prior to its publication
Not submitting reports on the military for review is a crime in Israel, and the censor can file a complaint with the body that enforces the Defense Regulations. At the extreme, the censor can even suspend or shut down a media outlet completely, at any time and without explanation. In 1984, for example, censors shut down a newspaper for three days after it published the photo of a handcuffed man who was killed while in the custody of the Shin Bet intelligence service, contrasting the official report that he had died in combat.
Until recently, the censor's guidelines had only applied to traditional mass media such as books and newspapers and their digital arms, but not to blogs, social media or other newer forms of commentary.
Now, it seems, the regulations have expanded to include forums, Facebook posts and writers who post views critical of the army.
"Even if you agree on the fact that a democratic country needs military censorship - which is dubious to begin with - there's a way to do it," the anti-occupation blogger said. "Until now the censor at least operated retroactively so that posts that really put the country in danger were removed. But we are talking about a colonel in the army who sent these messages from her Facebook account. I'm sorry, but this is an extreme escalation - even for Israeli standards."
'Bloggers can only blame themselves'
Despite the shock expressed by users, many in Israel believe that bloggers should meet the censor's criteria if they want to be treated as journalists, a level of recognition that many have sought for years.
In an interview with the newspaper Haaretz, a lawyer who specializes in media regulations pointed out that bloggers had taken their demands for official press cards to the Supreme Court - and won.
"Now," he says, "after they managed to make one government office to recognize them as journalists, they can only blame themselves when other officials accept them as such too. Journalists don't only have rights, but also duties, and in Israel one of these duties is working with the censors."
The IDF also doesn't see this move as an escalation, but as an "adjustment" to the ever-changing definition of press. "The censor does not block the publication of all security-related information, but only of material that it is deemed will almost certainly harm national security," a spokesman said.
"The fundamental value of freedom of expression, its importance and the need to correctly balance it with safeguarding national security, is always at the forefront of the censor's mind, and this applies to Internet publications, too," the spokesman said. "From time to time, the censor contacts relevant parties in order to underline the obligation to submit items concerning security for review prior to publication. In the past week, a number of Facebook pages that define themselves as news or breaking news pages were contacted in this way. No requests were made to remove any material."