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

Gagging orders, media censorship and the public interest.

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.

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

Camilla Schick is a  journalist based between London and Tel Aviv, writing on culture, religion and international politics.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war