Amid News of an Army Failure, Israeli Press Attacks Censorship REVIEWING THE CENSOR

Article excerpt

AS details have leaked out about a botched Israeli Army training exercise three weeks ago that killed five soldiers, the affair has turned from personal tragedy, to embarrassment and scandal for military leaders, to a full-blown attack on Israel's pervasive military censorship.

The country's most respected daily newspaper, Haaretz, has pulled out of a longstanding agreement between leading dailies and the military censor, expressing lack of confidence in the system. The chairman of the parliament's Constitutional Law Committee is planning to reform censorship rules.

The role of the censor, who inspects everything published about the military in Israel, has come under scrutiny since he banned mention of the fact that the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ehud Barak, and his military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Uri Saguy, were present at the fatal exercise at Tselim, in the Negev desert.

Unprecedented leaks from military sources have suggested that the maneuver was apparently a rehearsal for an attack on the Iranian-backed Hizbullah (Party of God) in Lebanon by an elite Army unit that in the past has specialized in behind-the-lines operations such as assassinations.

Suppression of the generals' presence raised suspicions of a coverup, especially since friends of Amiram Levin, the one general found responsible for the accident by a commission of inquiry, began hinting to reporters that others were also to blame.

"The protection of high-ranking officers' reputations and careers most certainly does not come within {the censor's} parameters," said the Jerusalem Post in a recent editorial.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Nov. 23 that details of General Barak's and General Saguy's presence at the exercise had been suppressed so as not to give the impression that there was anything unusual about the maneuver.

But Israeli newspaper editors felt that the censor had gone well beyond his authority, which is to "apply restrictions only when there is near certainty of a real threat to the country's security," in the words of a 1989 High Court ruling.

"We were very convinced that it was not legal to do what they did," complains Haaretz editor Hannoch Marmari.

The row prompted Mr. Marmari to pull his paper out of an informal arrangement, as old as the state of Israel, between the Army and national daily papers. That agreement provides that the censor will not use his authority to close down the papers for publication of banned material, while the editors forfeit their right to challenge his rulings in the High Court, and instead take their disputes to a secret tribunal. …