(updated below with the New York Times’s response)
LAST THURSDAY, an Israeli soldier was arrested after the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem posted horrific video of the soldier shooting a 21-year-old Palestinian man in the head from point-blank range, and killing him, even though he was already shot, wounded, and lying incapacitated on the ground. The killing took place in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron after the Palestinian man, Abed al-Fatah al-Sharif, stabbed an IDF soldier at a military occupation checkpoint.
As The Intercept’s Robert Mackey reported that day, none of the nearby IDF soldiers or Israeli rescue workers — who had ignored the wounded Palestinian — reacted at all to the killing, suggesting that this sort of point-blank, cold-blooded assassination was the norm for the occupying army — except for the fact that this time, it was captured on video. Mackey also noted that although the soldier’s face could be seen in the video, none of the Israeli media named him, despite the fact that his name quickly circulated on social media sites:
The soldier’s name was not used in the Israeli media, but his supporters online, calling him a hero, drew attention to what appears to be his Facebook profile. That account, in the name of Cpl. Elor Azaria, includes several photographs that closely match the appearance of the soldier seen in the video, as well as a recent commendation of his service from the army.
Other writers have also subsequently named the soldier [his Hebrew name is transliterated as Cpl. Elor Azarya or El’or Azariya] as well; that includes Israelis and even municipalities celebrating him as a hero, publishing his photograph and Hebrew name to do so:
The fatal shooting by Cpl. Azariya has become a major news story in Israel, but not for the reason one might assume. There is very little outrage over his decision to shoot a wounded, subdued 21-year-old Palestinian in the head from point-blank range. There is, however, significant outrage at the military for detaining and investigating him. One poll from Channel 2 News in Israel, cited by Haaretz, found that “most of the public (57 percent) believed there was no need to detain and investigate the soldier,” while only “5 percent defined the shooting of the wounded assailant as murder.”
In today’s New York Times, Jerusalem-based correspondent Isabel Kershner has an article reporting on the controversy. There is, however, a glaring omission: the name of the soldier who did the killing and is now under arrest. Here’s how the paper justifies that suppression:
An Israeli military court order has banned the use of the soldier’s name in all press accounts, including those of foreign news organizations accredited in Israel, even though the soldier has a Facebook page and has been widely identified by name in social media.
The soldier’s Facebook page suggests sympathies with some far-right causes. He told another soldier at the scene that Mr. Sharif had stabbed his friend and “deserved to die,” according to Israeli news media reports.
The NYT’s compliance with Israel’s censorship orders has previously provoked controversy. In 2014, the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, described the compliance by Kershner and Jodi Rudoren with an order from an Israeli military censor to conceal the name of an Israeli soldier who was being held hostage.
At the time, the paper’s reporters and editors insisted that they would obey Israeli censorship orders only in the rarest and most compelling of cases. In the 2014 case, there was a valid argument that disclosing the soldier-hostage’s identity could jeopardize his safety because he was related to the Israeli defense minister. Moreover, in her own article explaining the censorship, Rudoren acknowledged that the NYT “has ways to circumvent the censor” by simply having other NYT journalists not based in Israel report the censored information.
In this case, there’s no valid rationale for censoring the name of the soldier. He’s a criminal defendant in a high-profile case that, at least originally, involved charges of murder. His face is in the video. His name has been spread all over the internet by his supporters heralding him as a hero. His name has also been reported by media outlets — including The Intercept — not subject to Israeli censorship orders.
One distinction here is that the suppression order comes from an Israeli court rather than a military censor. During the 2014 controversy, the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone reported that while the explicit rationale of the paper’s spokesperson was that the paper must abide by the laws of the countries where it operates, “some of the paper’s top editors said they didn’t know the Times abided by such restrictions,” at least when it came to orders from military censors.
It’s true that the situation faced by the NYT here — along with other media outlets based in Israel — is a difficult one. The paper could theoretically lose its media credentials to report from Israel if it flagrantly violates a judicial gag order, though it’s hard to imagine Israel expelling the NYT and other major media outlets from the country.
But there’s an even greater danger from allowing a government or a court to censor vital information that is needed to fully report on the story. Certainly there must be some Israeli censorship order that is so offensive to journalistic integrity and accurate reporting that the NYT would refuse to comply with it, no matter the consequences. Remember that 45 years ago, in the U.S., the same paper defied orders from the U.S. government to refrain from publishing the Pentagon Papers, risking prosecution to do so. Few things are more damaging to journalistic credibility than allowing governments and militaries to dictate what can and cannot be reported.
The Haaretz investigative journalist Uri Blau extensively analyzed the soldier’s Facebook postings and — without naming him — concluded that his social media output “presents a deep-rooted hatred of Palestinians.” Understanding the shooter and his motives is vital.
The complexity of the situation should not be overlooked. Violating a court order is not an easy choice. But at the very least, the NYT should publicly account for why it withheld this information (The Intercept’s requests for comment were not returned at the time of publication; they will be added if they are received). And the fact that Israeli courts are protecting a soldier charged with murder, captured on video, by censoring media outlets from reporting his name is disturbing for all sorts of reasons.
The New York Times’s deputy international editor, Jodi Rudoren — who was also involved in the 2014 military censorship order described in this article — has responded to The Intercept’s inquiry. Posted below is Rudoren’s response:
Thanks for the interest in Isabel’s story.
Whether we comply, defy, or challenge an order in court in a foreign jurisdiction is a decision we make based on the particular facts before us. In this case, we felt we could tell the story of how this case is roiling Israeli society without the soldier’s name. Had we thought that the court order prevented us from providing a robust, complete version of that debate, we would have considered workaround options we have used in the past — reporting the story from outside Israel.
Of course we always want to give readers as much information as possible. Indeed, we included a reference to the court order so that readers would know exactly what was going on; that transparency is important to understanding both our practices and how Israel functions.
As for my past comments, I’m not sure I said “compliance” would “occur only in the most extreme cases.” I think what I said — and certainly what I meant — was that we hardly ever encounter Israel’s censor. The situation you mention, of the potentially kidnapped soldier’s relationship to the defense minister, was my first dealing with the censor. In that case, as you probably know, the ban on writing about the relationship was lifted two days later, and we wrote about the relationship as well as the whole censorship process.
I’ll simply note that any censorship order from a government that has no valid rationale — and that’s certainly the case here — ought to be defied or at least challenged given the threat it poses to journalistic freedom and reporting accuracy.