Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

March 3, 2011

Self-Censorship: To Write or Not To Write

By David K. Shipler

One April morning in 1984, my friend Amos Elon, the Israeli writer, appeared unannounced at my door in Jerusalem. He looked grave, without the touch of wry irony that often played around his eyes. He had walked the few blocks from his house to give me startling news, which he was not willing to speak about by phone.

What he had to say propelled me into a conflict between ethics and the law, forcing a decision that another reporter might have made another way.
I’ve been thinking about it lately as The New York Times and The Washington Post have come under readers’ criticism for bowing to a government plea to withhold the fact that Raymond A. Davis, the American claiming diplomatic immunity after killing two Pakistanis, was a CIA contractor. The government feared for his life if the CIA connection was revealed, and wanted time to get the Pakistanis to move him to safety. Only after The Guardian in London went ahead with the report did the Times and the Post publish.

This took me back to 1984, when I was Jerusalem bureau chief for the Times. I had just covered a bus hijacking by four Palestinian terrorists, who had forced it into Gaza to demand a release of Palestinian prisoners. All night Israeli commandos had practiced raiding an empty bus, and just before dawn they swept aboard the one holding 35 hostages, rescuing all except for a 19-year-old woman soldier who was hit by gunfire when she failed to keep her head down. After a delay, the army announced that two of the hijackers had been killed during the raid, and the other two had “died on their way to the hospital.”

That seemed to be the end of the story until Amos came to my door. He told me what he had heard: that two Israeli photographers on the scene had taken pictures of two of the terrorists, alive and looking unscathed, as they had been led away from the bus. The Israeli military censor had prohibited publication of the photographs.

The meaning was obvious. If true, the two who had “died on their way to the hospital” had actually been murdered while in Israeli custody as prisoners. I called the photographers. One, for Israel’s largest newspaper, Maariv, said he would not try to confirm that his subject was a hijacker, because he did not want to face a choice between journalism and patriotism. By contrast, the other photographer, for an upstart tabloid named Hadashot, went to lengths to identify his man.

When questioned, a middle-level military spokesman, insisting that Israel did not kill prisoners, speculated that the men pictured might have been hostages, not hijackers. So I went to look at Hadashot’s photograph. The man had handcuffs on his wrists—not what a rescued hostage might be wearing. His face was free of bruises, and he was dressed in a light-colored jacket with no sign of blood; the picture was so clear you could count the links on his watchband.

Then, since the authorities had helpfully named the hijackers and their hometowns in the Gaza Strip, I drove down to where the army had taken its usual revenge on the families of terrorists by destroying their houses. Comparing the picture I’d seen with photos in the local school’s records, plus family photos shown to me by the hijacker’s uncle, I confirmed that at least one of the men was one of the terrorists, apparently alive and well when captured. The uncle also said that when he had been summoned to make an identification, his nephew’s body was badly battered.

I never hesitated to write. I knowingly violated censorship. I never asked my editors in New York to make a decision, and Israeli officials didn’t have a chance to request that we withhold the story. Our Israeli photographer, Micha Bar-Am, who reluctantly accompanied me to Gaza, worried that the news might endanger Israeli soldiers being held prisoner by Syria and various factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization. And several days later—after the initial stories had run—Defense Minister Moshe Arens asked me directly to stop writing about the incident, lest Israeli prisoners be executed in retaliation. I didn’t stop; it was too late anyway—the story was out.

Was I right? I believe so, but I had a few tense weeks of worry that Syria or the PLO might take revenge. Gradually that risk seemed to pass, and in the end, no Israeli prisoners were killed. Further, as I learned a couple of years ago, publicizing the murders—which were committed not by the army but by Israel’s domestic security service, the Shin Beth—provoked significant revisions in policy and practice designed to prevent any such crime from recurring. Contrary to official fears, reporting on the incident did not cause deaths but evidently saved lives.

The moral of the story seems to be this: Journalists cannot predict the impact of what they report, and neither can government officials, so it is usually better to play the role of reporter honestly and completely, and tell the story without dodging and weaving around facts in speculation about what they might provoke. That’s the easy conclusion. However, I admit in retrospect that had the outcome been different—had Israeli prisoners been murdered—I might not feel as sure of myself as I did at the time, and still do today. I sympathize with editors and reporters who struggle with similar concerns. The choices are not always clear, and sometimes a different calculation has to be made. Indeed, in doing another story from Israel, I honored an official’s request to withhold a fact, and I’m comfortable with that decision as well.

I was writing about Israel’s extensive commercial and security connections that had been developed with African countries even without establishing formal diplomatic ties. David Kimche, a former Mossad official who had become director general of the Foreign Ministry, was eagerly touting Israel’s de facto acceptance in that part of the world. As evidence, he noted that so many Israelis and their families were living in some African countries that Hebrew-language schools had been created for their children.

After I returned to the office and was writing, I got a call—whether from Kimche himself or the Foreign Ministry’s press officer I can’t remember—asking if I would be willing to refrain from mentioning the schools. If their existence became known, they might become targets of terrorism.

I didn’t hesitate. I said that of course I would leave them out of the story. (There is no risk in reporting this 30 years later without the names of the countries.) It was a minor sacrifice journalistically. The schools, while illustrative, were not the heart of the story. And of course I was not suppressing information about a crime.

The general who served as the army’s chief spokesman during the bus hijacking also did not want to cover up a crime, he told me after my initial stories. He was distressed that one of his underlings had said publicly that the prisoners could not possibly have been killed after capture; the general requested that I check directly with him before publishing any further army statements. He explained how carefully he had composed his press announcement, saying neither that the prisoners had been murdered—beaten to death, as it was later revealed—nor that they had died during the rescue operation. I have prisoners in PLO hands, he also told me, but he would not be a party to covering up murder. He said it just that way, a stunning confirmation of the crime.

The military censor was also highly indignant that his good offices, designed to protect secrets and not reputations, had been misused in this affair, I learned later. Significantly, neither he nor his subordinates ever said a thing to me about violating the law. This was uncharacteristic. Much lesser breaches in the past, mostly oversights in failing to submit articles on military matters for prior censorship, would bring a polite invitation from a colonel to come for coffee, where I’d get a gentle reminder on the topics requiring clearance. This time, there was no invitation to coffee.

Only the civilian head of the government press office was ordered to summon me for a dressing-down, but it was more like a friendly chat designed to manufacture some absolution. You probably didn’t know this hijacking story was subject to censorship, he said. Incorrect, I replied. I knew very well. He looked chagrined. Well, you won’t do it again, right? I won’t tell you in advance what I am going to do, I said. I explained that I’d always known that one day I might find myself in a clash between my journalistic ethics and Israel’s censorship law. This was the first time in my five years there that it had happened, but I couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t happen again.

So he asked me to help him and his assistant write a press release announcing that he had reprimanded me, a mild alternative to withdrawing my press credentials, which some cabinet ministers wanted. The two officials began going over wording with me. Stop, I said. It’s your press release, not mine. Say what you need to say. They did, portraying the session as a good deal harsher than it was. Clearly, ambivalence about censoring news of a double murder permeated the Israeli establishment, both military and civilian.

Once publicized, the crime generated investigations. The attorney general recommended prosecuting an army general who had pistol whipped the prisoners, and five Shin Beth agents, three soldiers, and three police officers who were implicated in the beating. The general was acquitted in an army hearing. The head of the Shin Beth, who was present and was accused by colleagues of ordering the murders, was forced to resign, but the prosecutions were aborted when Israel’s president issued a blanket pardon in advance, reportedly to avoid testimony that such treatment of prisoners had been authorized by superiors.

All this reaffirms what I believed then and now: that the reporter’s sacred trust in a free society is to report, not to suppress. It is to expose, not to conceal. It is to turn problems into the sunlight, not to keep them in the shadows where they will only fester. Extreme circumstances may rarely—only rarely—justify self-censorship, but only if it remains an acutely uncomfortable act for writers and editors, contrary to their mission. If it sets a precedent that government invokes the next time and the next, and if journalists get used to doing it, we are all poorer.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting, indeed. Important issues. Really appreciate reading what happened in your experience and what your thoughts were - are - about it. Very illuminating. These questions can be hard!
    Thanks again.