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How the Israeli press beat the censor to bring "Prisoner X" to their public

Gagging orders, media censorship and the public interest.

Australian newspapers lead their front pages in Australia
Australian newspapers lead their front pages in Australia with the story of Ben Zygier. Photograph: Getty Images

It seems worthy of a John le Carré novel: a prisoner whose name was unknown even to his guards was found hanging in a maximum security cell-within-a-cell originally built for the assassin of a former prime minister, his identity and death then vanished by the security services. Israeli media had tried to report the detainment of this "prisoner X" back in 2010, and his death a few months later, only for the reports to be immediately removed by Israel’s military censor. To the Israeli public, the case was dead.

What happened next was to reignite overdue debate around press censorship in Israel as much as apparent misconduct by the secret, prison and legal services.

This week the Israeli government was caught off guard when Australian network ABC News released findings of their months long investigation, revealing Prisoner X had been a Jewish Australian national named Ben Zygier who had migrated to Israel in his early twenties, ten years prior to his death, opting for army service, marrying an Israeli, starting a family here, and becoming a Mossad agent who later breached the law of his former homeland by using his Australian passport to fake several aliases.

Despite the ABC News report being very much out of the bag for the whole world on Tuesday, within Israel itself the next 48 hours saw an absurdly ill-timed circus of gag-within-gag (i.e. super-injunction) court orders ceremoniously reigned down upon newsrooms from "above", more disappearing articles, and frustrated Israeli journalists chafing at the bit, outraged at how their government’s attempts to shut up a horse long bolted from the stable was making Israel look simply ridiculous in face its own citizens let alone the world.

Jerusalem Post journalist David Brinn later reported the moment he tried highlighting the obvious to a military censor officer calling through: “You realise that the story is on the ABC News website and everyone is able to read about it?” At least one Israel-based foreign press reporter informed – via Twitter – that the military censor was also calling them. Reuters had effortlessly bypassed the censor, reporting ABC’s investigation with a London (as opposed to, say, a Jerusalem) dateline. While details of Zygier’s identity, including photos, were being disseminated on Twitter and Facebook by journalists inside and outside Israel faster than any censor could hit "delete".

It was when Haaretz newspaper cunningly side-stepped the gag order without breaching it - by reporting simply an "editors committee" meeting had been summoned at the Prime Minister’s office where media chiefs had been asked to “withhold publication of information pertaining to an incident that is very embarrassing to a certain government agency” - that the rest of the media got hooked. An Israeli editor later told ABC News reporter Trevor Bormann that several of them had "turned" on Mossad chief Tamir Pardo apparently also present at this meeting, complaining gag orders have too long disrupted the health of the press and democracy and that reform is needed to take the digital age into account, while another editor accused Pardo of “treating the Israeli public like fools”.

By Tuesday evening three Israeli politicians had seized the opportunity to use their parliamentary immunity to question the justice minister about "Prisoner X" at a Knesset assembly, finally throwing Israeli media the bone they needed to report on the case from within Israel.

By Wednesday morning the government had little choice but to partially lift the gag order. But while the Israeli press could now report on the ABC News investigation, they were still banned from any original reporting of their own. The cockeyed nature of the censor policy was particularly highlighted when Haaretz had to publish it’s morning paper with a limited report on Prisoner X while the International Herald Tribune, a partner supplement sold together with the paper in Israel, contained a full report. A frustrated Haaretz Editor, Aluf Benn, who had refused to attend the editors committee meeting, then let rip in his op-ed, arguing Israel’s government censorship in modern times has become a “pathetic attempt to turn back the clock" to a time before WikiLeaks, social media and bloggers.

As Israeli journalists continued to rapidly affirm the case through foreign and social media, by the evening the state buckled, releasing an official statement acknowledging an Australian national had been secretly detained under a false identity by court order, citing security reasons (with no mention of the Mossad), and that the prisoner had full access to legal aid but had subsequently committed suicide.

Journalistic investigation has since snowballed, with recent reports suggesting Zygier might have turned into a double agent on the verge of moving back to Australia and about to blow the whistle on Israel’s misuse of foreign passports, the 2010 Mossad-led assassination of a Hamas arms dealer in Dubai being a known case in point. Another crucial development is Israeli lawyer Avigdor Feldman saying he met Zygier the day before he died to discuss a possible plea-bargain deal, but that Zygier had “wanted to clear his name” by going to trial instead, and that he had seemed “very rational and focused. He did not seem suicidal.”

Whatever the story evolves as, suspected negligence around the fact that an Israeli citizen who was seeking fair trial died unnamed while in the custody of the democratic state he served, is undeniably for the Israeli press - not "foreign sources" - to initiate investigation of and for the Israeli public to judge. Concerning state security, how far the Israeli press should continue down the rabbit hole is again also rightfully up for their public to debate. The most severe scenario, if Zygier was a Mossad agent, is that the mere revelation of his identity has already risked the lives of other agents – Israeli and perhaps even those working for other governments. Though probably - picking up on the use of the word "embarrassing", as opposed to say "threatening" or "deadly", by the PM’s office in their meeting to the media chiefs - the Israeli government feared immediate straining of relations between Israel and its close ally Australia, which will likely heal.

Either way, the Israeli press will do good to raise serious questions over not only Israel’s justice system but also the conduct of the security services towards patriotic Diaspora-born Jews they recruit. The fact that Zygier was Australian is Australia’s business, with ABC News doing their job right. But the fact that he was also Israeli - a Jew who first loved, moved to and served Israel before something went seriously wrong – makes his case very much of Israeli public interest, within a nation greatly and proudly made up of immigrants from all over.

Tags:Israel