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News Out Of Israel Filtered Through Military Censor

"Chief Military Censor" is right up there with "Propaganda Minister" on the list of job titles that make journalists squirm.

But Israel has a chief military censor, Col. Sima Vaknin, and she has significant power over the press. "I can, for example, publish an order that no material can be published," she told the Associated Press. "I can close a newspaper or shut down a station. I can do almost anything."

Vaknin's presence means that military news Israel does not want out – like a failed missile attack, for example – can be suppressed. If news outlets refuse to abide by her office's rules, they are not allowed to operate in Israel. The AP and other news organizations have agreed to the rules in order to keep reporting from the country.

I spoke to CBS News Senior Vice President of Standards and Special Projects Linda Mason about whether CBS News has agreed to the same rules. She says it has, but that "this isn't exactly what it seems."

"To get a press card you do have to sign an agreement," she says. "It applies to strategic military information that we might get unilaterally. During the last war in the 90s – the Iraq war – Israelis asked that press not pinpoint where the rockets had landed. Which makes sense – otherwise the enemies could correct their aim."

If the AP reports something, we report it," she continues. "If we get something unilaterally and we can't get the Israeli military to confirm, we call the censorship office, which confirms, denies, or asks us to word it in a different way."

According to the AP, "Reporters are expected to censor themselves and not report any of the forbidden material...When in doubt, they can submit a story to the censor who will hand it back, possibly with deletions."

The wire service lays out the Israelis' logic.

So far in this conflict, about one rocket in 100 fired by Hezbollah has killed an Israeli. The rest usually explode in empty fields, tear concrete from abandoned streets or plunk into the Mediterranean. Fired blind, Hezbollah's thousands of mostly short-range, inaccurate munitions simply pose a random peril to Israeli citizens.

For obvious reasons, Israel would like to keep it that way. But live media feedback, the censor says, changes everything.

If a news outlet reports immediately that a missile splashed into the sea, for example, any guerrilla with an Internet connection knows to aim left. Report that an oil refinery in Haifa went up in flames, and Hezbollah will surely celebrate and reload. Report that a senior official is headed north, and rockets will be raining down in no time.

In America, journalists are subject to some of the same rules – embedded journalists agree not to reveal troop movements, for example, or attacks as they happen. But Israel seems to go further in its management of the press – something that has become increasingly clear in recent days.
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