How the New York Times Handles Israeli Censorship

NOTE: This piece is by Jodi Rudoren, the New York Times bureau chief in Jerusalem. This was originally posted on the NYT's Times Insider, available only to subscribers. To make it more widely available I am sharing it here. You can follow Jodi on Twitter, where she is @rudoren.

JERUSALEM — Since I arrived in Jerusalem more than two years ago, I have taken a "Don't Ask/Hope They Don't Tell" approach to Israel's military censor. Like every other journalist who works here, I had to sign a form agreeing to comply with the censorship system in order to get a government press card, which I need to enter various buildings, events and the Gaza Strip. But no one ever told me what to submit to the censor, or how (which was more than fine with me).

Until Friday. I was reporting on the attack in which Palestinian militants killed two Israeli soldiers outside Gaza's southern city of Rafah and possibly captured a third, shattering a planned 72-hour halt in hostilities, when the phone rang.

"This is Udi, the military censor," said a voice. He told me that articles about the Israeli who might have been captured, Second Lt. Hadar Goldin, had to be submitted before publication. I mentioned that we had already had an article on our website, and he said not to worry, just send updates. He gave me an email address and a phone number, and promised a quick turnaround.

The call came shortly after I had confirmed that Lieutenant Goldin, 23, was related to Israel's defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon. I knew Israel was concerned that if this got out, it might "raise the price" for the captive, or potentially affect the way he was treated. I didn't ask Udi directly, but got the sense this was the issue, and promised to be in touch later.

Some critics on social media and elsewhere have noted that The New York Times, as a global news organization, has ways to circumvent the censor, and they are correct. In the past, The Times (and many other outlets) published important stories, which Israel prohibited, by writers outside Israel, thus meeting readers' needs without risking our local credentials. A prime example was Israel's 2007 attack on a Syrian nuclear reactor, which in the Israeli news media is still something known only "according to foreign reports." The Times published an article on the subject written by reporters in Washington.

Lieutenant Goldin's relationship to a high-ranking politician was a different kind of story. The Times, in the past, has withheld information that might jeopardize the life of a captive soldier at the request of American authorities. Editors in New York would have wanted to discuss if The Times should break news about the captured Israeli soldier's family ties in any case, as the paper has policies in place that require careful consideration of the circumstances before we release information about hostages.

Even so, a colleague in New York did prepare an article in case we changed our journalistic calculations, or the information about the soldier was widely reported by other media outlets. Meanwhile, the international editor, Joe Kahn, and I decided that we should mention the censor's call in our web story, for transparency. We were leaving something out of the article, and felt we needed to signal that to readers. The inserted paragraph noted the rarity of the censor's intervention.

When I was ready to refile a fuller version of the article, I called Udi back and told him we would prefer not to send the draft, as prior review is a big journalistic no-no. I told him we were not including the Ya'alon connection, and summarized for him the scant biographical material about Lieutenant Goldin we had included. He gave me the green light. That article included a paragraph explaining this process, again to be as straight as we could with readers.

On Sunday, after the military declared Lieutenant Goldin killed in action, the censor "cleared for publication" his relationship to the defense minister (second cousins once removed). We published that and noted that we had previously been blocked from doing so.

Some have suggested the censor stopped us from discussing the military's controversial Hannibal Doctrine, in which troops are ordered to stop an abduction even at the risk of killing their own comrade. Not true. This concept was discussed in my Friday piece, and Hannibal was mentioned specifically in an early version of the Sunday story by Steven Erlanger (it is no longer online). I never showed or read Udi the censor what we were saying about the attack itself or its aftermath, and he never asked.

While we're on this topic, I should briefly address a related one — the gag orders often imposed by Israeli courts on security stories. As I have said previously in other forums, while living in Jerusalem, I am bound by such court orders as I am by other laws. The Times also has the same options for circumventing them.

Israeli reporters who cover security agencies often dig up details that they must hold back for fear of court sanction. That has not happened to me, though I sometimes run into gag orders while reporting — I ask someone about something, and they'll say they can't discuss it because of a gag order.

For example, in the aftermath of the June 12 kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers hitchhiking home from the occupied West Bank, I inquired about the phone call one of them had made to a police hotline, and about whether their DNA had turned up in the burned car found near Hebron. But I never got information that met our journalistic standards for publication, so we did not have to confront the question of circumventing the court.

When the audiotape of the police call was broadcast on radio and television after the teenagers' bodies were found, we wrote about it and noted that there had been a gag order — transparency, again. (This early version is also no longer on the web.)

I would certainly prefer to work somewhere with no censor; Udi was nice enough, but I hope he loses my phone number. Any censorship is a huge compromise. In these cases, though, the actual cost to readers' understanding was limited.