Censorship: might vs. right.

Author:Andelman, David A.
Position:CODA
 
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We hit the road before dawn on May 14, 1982, headed for Israel's northern border with Lebanon. There were four of us in the car--our two-man CBS News crew (cameraman and soundman), the Tel Aviv bureau producer and me. Tensions were mounting with Lebanon, which was then serving as the sanctuary for the leadership and many followers of the Palestine Liberation Organization [PLO]. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was already looking for a reason to send forces in, to discredit and destroy the PLO. But the PLO had maintained a ceasefire for nearly a year, and appeared to be pursuing a diplomatic strategy. Its tactics were frustrating Begin's plans. Still, we'd had reports of Israeli forces on the move, massing on their side of the frontier. So we were heading north to shoot a segment.

By 11 a.m. we were back in the editing room in Herzliya cutting our piece. An hour later we were ready to show it to the Israeli military censor. Censor? In the nation that describes itself as the one real democracy between Greece and India? That's right. If we showed a single tank or soldier, or filmed any region considered strategic, the censor had to pass it, or we couldn't transmit it to New York. And the government, in those days, controlled the satellite links. They were clearly quite sensitive about any story that might suggest they were massing forces on the frontier.

It took at least an hour for the censor to stroll into the editing room. By then, it was just another hour until the "bird was up"--that is, until the transmission link to New York via satellite was alive, and we'd begin paying for every minute. We were starting to feel real deadline pressure, largely in the form of urgent telexes from the producers at the CBS Broadcast Center in New York. Meanwhile, the censor had plopped himself in front of the monitors on the editing console and was screening our story. When he'd gone through it once, he asked that it be rewound to a shot halfway through the piece where, way off in the distance, a pair of Israeli tanks, barely specks on the horizon, could be seen moving near the border fence.

"You will have to remove that," he said. We had 15 minutes until the satellite went live, and we were faced with having to recut the piece, find a new shot that would work with the narration and lay it in. "What's wrong with that?" I asked in bewilderment. The censor shot back: "You can read the markings on the tanks, and our enemies will know which units we have along our border."

I was dumbfounded. Frankly, I thought our producers in New York would wonder why we even referred to tanks. They might as easily have been a family of tiny armadillos moving across the screen, they were so far away. "Fine," I said. "But we will have to tell our producers that you've ordered this done, and they will superimpose, 'Censored by the Israeli military.'"

"You can't do that," he huffed. I turned and stared him down. "Oh we wouldn't do it from here, but they would back there. Is that how you want Israel portrayed to millions of Americans just waking up in the morning?" This time, the censor bolted to the phone and frantically began calling his superiors. By now the satellite was live, and we were explaining to New York what was going on. Fifteen minutes later, the censor surfaced and chuffed, "Alright, this time, you may send it." We'd won. In my opinion, so had the Israeli public. But it was merely one minor skirmish in a long war.

I thought of this incident this past summer, when the government of Pakistan proposed a new law banning the nation's media from reporting on the aftermath of brutal terrorist attacks in their country--particularly the volatile and all but lawless Northwest Frontier Province, where much of the Al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership has holed up. The law appeared to be targeting the local television networks, where the bloodiest images have appeared. Like Israel, Pakistan considers itself a democracy, at least during those moments when a duly elected regime is in control. Yet this law suggested a first step on a road toward government censorship that could prove inimical to the very freedoms the nation's rulers are seeking to preserve.

I've suffered through my share of attempts at news management by governments. A few days after my brush with the Israeli military censor, Zev Chafers--the Pontiac, Michigan-born director of the government press office under Prime Minister Begin--called me into his office in Jerusalem. By then, I'd had several stories for the Morning News and the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather under my belt. Though he later morphed into a defender of a free press, at that moment he was not very happy with me. The conversation went something like this:

Zev: David, how could you do stories like these?

David: What do you mean?

Zev: You're a Jewish reporter.

David: I'm an American correspondent for CBS News.

Zev: These are not the kind of stories a Jewish reporter should be writing about Israel, the Jewish homeland.

David: Are any of them inaccurate in any fashion?

Zev: That's not the point ...

Mildly unnerved, and deeply disappointed in the reaction from...

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