THE BLOG
06/06/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Reporter's Notebook: Breaking the Gag

Somewhere in Europe, Sonya Mousa is breathing a sigh of relief.

Or so I'm guessing. I've never met or spoken with Sonya Mousa. But, last week when I was wrapping up my coverage of the Anat Kam case - the Israeli journalist under secret house arrest since December over allegedly leaked military documents - and thinking about using a pseudonym, this was the first name that came to mind.

Issues around the state-imposed censorship rules, and the fact that other journalists involved in the case were now living abroad in secret exile made me at concerned about my safety.

I'd been monitoring Kam's situation for quite some time. I watched blogs and tweets about it go up, only to be pulled down, for the past month. When the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA) followed in blogger Richard Silverstein's footsteps and broke the story in English, I contacted my editor; "It's a risk," I told her, "but let's do it."

There was a week before the article would run, so I had time to think about whether or not my name would be on it.

I asked the editor if we could go without an author, just in case; she said no. There is the option of a pseudonym, she added. I've written under several in the past, mostly to provide cover for interviewees who feared prosecution or social stigma.

I consulted with several lawyers. One told me that as a citizen of Israel I'd be breaking the gag-order and risk punishment. But, he added, as someone writing in English for a foreign publication it was unlikely that I would actually become a target.

Another advised me not to do the story at all. But if you're going to, he said, use a pen name.

The third, an acquaintance, told me to keep as far away from the case as I could. After spending the evening researching it, he called me and repeated the warning. Forget about the pseudonym, he said. Just don't do it.

On Thursday, I filed as Sonya Mousa. But I realized it wouldn't be hard for authorities to figure out who had written the story if they wanted to. The pseudonym wouldn't provide me much cover.

And, more importantly, what message would a pen name send? That I'd been cowed by a gag order that goes against what Israel supposedly stands for: democracy. I would be admitting that the state I live in doesn't tolerate dissent.

I understand the need to keep details of a court case quiet. That's a gag I can respect. But blacking out news of Kam's arrest itself is a strike against free speech and freedom of the press. As Kam's lawyer put it when I interviewed him, "these are the foundations of democracy."

I have argued in the past that, because Israel was established on the dispossession and disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, there is no democracy here. But that doesn't mean that I shouldn't fight for the glimmerings. I don't want Israel to become a totalitarian state where people can disappear and no one speaks up.

Operation Cast Lead, the war against Gaza in 2008-9, was a clear tipping point for press freedom; reporters denied access to the warzone, press buildings bombed. A year later, the deportation of Ma'an News Agency editor Jared Malsin indicated that the current government is just as intolerant of dissent as the last one was. Israel plummeted in the most recent press rankings released by Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres- RSF), a NGO that advocates for journalists and freedom of the press. According to the latest report, Israel is in "free fall" due to "operation media crackdown":

"Operation Cast Lead, Israel's military offensive against the Gaza Strip, had an impact on the press. As regards its internal situation, Israel sank 47 places in the index to 93rd position. This nose-dive means it has lost its place at the head of the Middle Eastern countries, falling behind Kuwait (60th), United Arab Emirates (86th) and Lebanon (61st)."

RSF also stated, "Israel has begun to use the same methods internally as it does outside its own territory. Reporters Without Borders registered five arrests of journalists, some of them completely illegal, and three cases of imprisonment."

And, ominously, "The military censorship applied to all the media is also posing a threat to journalists."

But the blame doesn't rest entirely on the shoulders do the state. Self-censorship is also a problem in Israel. A Yediot Ahronoth journalist compiled a lengthy expose that detailed Israeli military officers knowingly and willingly breaking the rules of engagement during operation Cast Lead. After the story was finished, it was shelved by the news agency - only to be published by a London-based paper, The Independent.

To keep my name off the story also seemed like an act of tacit consent, silence that says to the government, "It's OK, I'll take this, we'll all take this, and you can do it again." Little by little, this is how rights get chipped away.

On Friday, emboldened by both Donald MacIntryre's reporting from Jerusalem, by Israeli blogger Idan Landau's post, and the AP's coverage, I was ready to take a stand. I wrote to my editor, "It's important to me to put my byline on the story."

If nothing happens to me, I reasoned, that means that free speech and freedom of the press isn't entirely dead yet. That means there is room for dissent. That means there is still hope for Israel.