Israel’s attorney general has decided to indict an Israeli journalist who in an investigative report revealed that top army officers had approved killings of wanted Palestinian militants in the West Bank, charging him with illegal possession of classified documents.   

The move against Uri Blau, a reporter with the liberal newspaper Haaretz, was the first prosecution of an Israeli journalist for possession of classified materials and drew sharp criticism from civil rights advocates and prominent defense correspondents, who called it a blow to freedom of the press.

The Justice Ministry said in an announcement Wednesday that Blau would be charged with unauthorized possession of secret information, though without intention to harm state security, and that legal action was taken because “this is an extreme case.”  

Blau based his reporting on a trove of some 1,800 army documents, hundreds of them classified, that were given to him by a former soldier who copied them when she worked in the office of the chief of the army’s Central Command, the regional command that includes the West Bank.

The former soldier, Anat Kamm, is serving a 41 / 2-year prison term for stealing the documents, which included summaries of top-level operational meetings cited by Blau in his article, one of several he wrote based on the material, which was passed to him in a USB flash drive.  

In the investigative report published in 2008 and approved by the military censor, Blau quoted minutes of meetings in which top officers approved killings of militants in the West Bank during what were ostensibly arrest operations, in violation of a Supreme Court ruling that barred assassinating militants if they could be apprehended.  

The report triggered an intense search for the source of the leak, leading to Kamm, and the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence service, demanded that Blau return all the documents he held.

According to the Justice Ministry statement, Blau initially returned only a fraction of the documents, violating an agreement that gave him immunity from prosecution in return for handing over all the material. The full extent of the leaked files emerged after Kamm’s arrest, and Blau later returned them all to the authorities.

Blau has kept silent on instructions from his lawyers and was quoted by his newspaper on Thursday as saying that he had “acted to fulfill my mission as a journalist.”

Dalia Dorner, a former Supreme Court judge and president of the Israel Press Council, criticized the indictment, saying it would have a “chilling effect” on journalists, whose work routinely involves leaks of information hidden by the authorities.

Mordechai Kremnitzer, a law professor and vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an influential think-tank, said in a radio interview that the work of reporters covering the army was essential because the military was “under the least oversight by the government and parliament.”

A group of prominent military correspondents published a statement warning that the step against Blau “could  turn every journalist into a potential criminal, or silence the media, make the defense establishment opaque and immune to criticism, effectively harming democracy.”