JERUSALEM (AP) – The Israeli government’s plans to indict an investigative reporter who exposed classified military practices for killing wanted Palestinian militants has sent a chill over Israel’s aggressive media and evoked dark warnings of a crusade to muzzle the press.
Israeli journalists have repeatedly accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of trying to stifle the press since he took office three years ago.
Critics say the planned indictment of Uri Blau from the liberal Haaretz newspaper goes even further by undercutting the essence of journalism: keeping citizens informed of what their government is up to.
The government replies that despite his insistence that he was just doing his job, the journalist was holding classified documents illegally and will be charged. An Israeli government spokesman declined to comment on the wider issues.
Dozens of Israeli journalists demonstrated Sunday against the planned indictment outside the Justice Ministry in Jerusalem. Officials say formal charges are expected within weeks.
“The charge sheet is directed against all journalists,” Haaretz commentator Gideon Levy wrote in his column Sunday. “The next journalist who receives information about a scandal in the Israeli military will tell his source, ‘leave me alone. I don’t want to get into trouble. I don’t want to be another Blau.'”
Israeli news media are famously unruly, exposing alleged government malfeasance involving everyone from prime ministers to lowly city workers on a regular basis. It was unclear if this case would actually tone down the sometimes over-zealous and super-competitive media outlets.
Blau could face up to seven years in prison for possessing sensitive military documents without proper authorizations, despite returning the material to the army.
Legal experts predict it is highly unlikely Blau will ever end up behind bars, saying the state will probably seek a plea bargain instead.
Blau obtained more than 2,000 military documents, including operational plans and lists of potential targets, from a former soldier who copied them from army computers between 2005 and 2007. Some 700 were classified.
He published some of the information in investigative articles, including one in 2007 alleging that the army had planned the killing of wanted Palestinian militants in violation of a court order to arrest them alive if possible.
As required under Israeli law, Blau submitted all of his stories to Israel’s military censor before they were published. The censor approved the articles, meaning they contained no information that was deemed dangerous to state security.
Nonetheless, prosecutors have come down hard on both Blau and Anat Kamm, the soldier who leaked the material to him. Kamm was sentenced last year to 4 1/2 years in prison on espionage charges.
After Kamm’s 2009 arrest, Haaretz kept Blau abroad for roughly a year to avoid prosecution. He returned to Israel in late 2010 after promising prosecutors to return documents, which he did.
Last week, the Justice Ministry said Blau would be charged with unauthorized possession of state secrets because “the potential for damage in the unprotected possession of the documents was enormous.” It concluded the gravity of his conduct outweighed the public’s right to know.
In his formal response to the impending charges, Blau said, “Everything I did, I did as part of my mission as a journalist.” He declined an interview request from the AP.
Former Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner, now president of the Israel Press Council, said she regretted the government’s decision to indict, saying Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein had the discretion not to prosecute.
Israel, whose leaders proudly call the country the Middle East’s only democracy, is not alone in targeting a journalist who revealed damaging secrets.
Four decades ago, the U.S. grappled with the leak of the Pentagon Papers, documents packed with damaging revelations about America’s conduct of the Vietnam War, to U.S. media. In a landmark case seen as a victory for press freedom, President Richard Nixon unsuccessfully tried to suppress publication and crush those responsible for the leak.
More recently, several countries have been embarrassed by documents obtained by the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.
The United States has charged an army private with aiding the enemy, a crime that can carry a sentence of life in prison, for allegedly sending hundreds of thousands of classified diplomatic cables and war logs downloaded from government computers to WikiLeaks.
News organizations that wrote stories based on WikiLeaks material have not been targeted.
Britain’s Official Secrets Act bars civil servants from leaking secrets, and several have been charged in recent years. But prosecutions of journalists who receive leaked information are rare in that country. Recently, Guardian journalist Amelia Hill was questioned over stories about a high-profile phone hacking scandal, but prosecutors decided she would not be charged.
In 2005, Germany authorities raided the offices of a magazine that obtained a classified intelligence report about a top al-Qaida figure. The country’s top constitutional court ruled the investigation and raid violated freedom of the press.
While Sweden bars the publication of classified information that could harm national security, prosecution is rare. In 1973, two Swedish journalists were convicted of espionage and sentenced to about one year each in prison for articles revealing the existence of a secret Swedish intelligence agency.
In Israel, critics of the government say the planned charges against Blau are part of a broader effort to muzzle detractors.
Parliament has also given preliminary approval to a bill that would make it much easier for journalists to be sued and significantly increases the fines reporters can be ordered to pay, without proof of damages.
AP reporters Jill Lawless in London, Juergen Baetz in Berlin and Karl Ritter in Stockholm contributed to this report.