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Tuesday, 04 September 2012

IPI Blog: Leaks, journalism, and the public good

Israeli court accepts plea bargain in Uri Blau case 

By: A.Jay Wagner, IPI Contributor

Uri Blau. Photo courtesy of Uri Blau.

As the United States grapples with the Wikileaks fallout, attempting to determine the fine distinction between what made Daniel Ellsburg a national hero and Bradley Manning an object of scorn, an Israeli journalist named Uri Blau has accepted a plea bargain on charges of possessing classified documents, setting an early Western precedent for what will be a controversial topic in the coming years.

Today, a Tel Aviv court accepted the plea deal. According to the Jerusalem Post, the court said it was forced to choose between the “competing values” of state security and press freedom, but that in the end, “state security trumped the rights and obligations of journalists, as without state security there would be no state and no newspapers in the first place”.

Blau, an investigative reporter for Israel's oldest daily, Haaretz, was sentenced, as a result of a plea bargain, to four months of community service for possessing thousands of confidential Israeli Defense Force (IDF) documents turned over to him by former Israeli soldier Anat Kamm. Kamm, facing espionage charges that carried a possible life sentence, also accepted a plea bargain arrangement in 2011. She was ultimately sentenced to four-and-half years in prison for leaking the classified information.

All this despite the fact that the articles containing the information from Kamm were approved by the Israeli Mititary Censor, an IDF outfit that does as its name suggests.

The information in question exposed a high-level alleged IDF plot to allow targeted killings of key officials in the Islamic Jihad organisation.

Blau's lawyer, Jack Hen, bluntly described the outcome as "a precedent-setting prosecution of a journalist for doing his job, according to which the public's right to know and freedom of the press were seriously damaged by the decision to put a journalist on trial for these reasons,” according to Haaretz newspaper.

The question of whether a leak serves the public interest, or who defines the public interest, will undoubtedly be confronted more frequently as leaks take place on an ever larger scale. Today, information lives a digital existence, making it easier to copy and distribute. No longer constrained to the realm of the physical, sensitive files can be moved about with a few clicks of a mouse.

While boundaries are necessary, as in all good laws, these need to be as narrowly drawn as possible. They should never threaten to send a journalist like Uri to prison for doing his job and serving the public interest. Much of what makes journalism valuable is an editor and journalist’s ability to shine a light on government transgressions and malfeasance, while minimising harm.

Often in their efforts to expose such corruption or wrongdoing, reporters will come into possession of classified information. It is the journalist's responsibility to then handle the knowledge conscientiously and sensitively, only distributing what is of public interest and redacting or holding what could be potentially harmful to individuals or nations. It's a nuanced balancing act of weighing the greater good versus possible damage, and is perhaps the weightiest task demanded of editors and journalists.

This dilemma brings to mind the George Orwell aphorism, "Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations." And when the tools of journalism, like leaked information and confidentiality, are legally ambiguous the powers that be will utilise the law as retaliation.

In June, the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI) and IPI National Committee Representatives from 14 countries issued an open letter to Yehuda Weinstein, the Israeli Attorney General, urging him to cease the prosecution of Blau. In the letter, IPI recognised the care used by Blau in his publication of the confidential information, not to mention the approval by censors.

Anat Kamm leaked state information; Uri used it to expose possible wrongdoing by the military. The court today says that it was forced to choose between state security and freedom of the press. This is a false choice, and one the court would not have to make if the laws governing whistleblowing and secrecy were more narrowly defined, recognized the role of journalism, and offered journalists (and whistleblowers) a robust public interest defense.