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.

Show Hide image

In Russia, Stalin is back

New statues and memorabilia are appearing, as Russians overlook the terror to hark back to a perceived era of order and national safety.

It was during the Victory Day march to commemorate those who fought in the World War Two, the Great Patriotic War (as it is known in Russia) that I saw the face of Stalin. A young woman carried a crimson flag with the image of the Leader which appeared amidst the black and white photographs of grandparents remembered on the seventieth anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany. Just a few months later I was back in Moscow to face the fact that the fleeting image of Stalin, like a seed dropped into rich soil, has sprouted everywhere. At the busy Moscow Domodedovo airport you can now buy souvenir mugs and badges featuring a man with a moustache, coiffed hair and unsmiling eyes; men wearing Stalin T-shirts walk the streets of Moscow and just in time for the festive season 2016 calendars with the twelve photos of the ”Red Tsar” are spread across the counters of the book shops. Most shockingly, new statues of Stalin have appeared in Lipetsk, Penza and Shelanger, a village in a Russian republic Mari El. The monuments were commissioned and erected by the Russia’s Communist Party. Its leader, Gennadiy Zyuganov, promised new statues to be built in Irkutsk in Siberia and in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. Charles de Gaulle, the former French president was right: “Stalin didn't walk away into the past, he dissolved into the future.”

According to a January 2015 survey by an independent, non-profit organisation, founded by a Russian sociologist Yuri Levada, 52 per cent of Russians think that Stalin played a “definitely positive” or ”mostly positive” role in Russia’s history. Stalin’s positive image today is cultivated mostly through his association with the Great Patriotic War. Throughout 2015 the Russian media have been obsessively commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, with Stalin, the generalissimo, at its helm. Political psychologist Elena Shestopal, quoted by the Levada Centre, explains that the positive opinion of Stalin is a reflection of the society’s demand for order and national safety. In her view, Russians associate Stalin with the role of the father: strict, demanding and powerful.

Stalin’s resurrection is astounding not least because his role in history and his “personality cult” have been consistently condemned in Russia since 1956. Three years after Stalin’s death, the then General Secretary Khrushchev denounced it at the Communist Party conference. Stalin’s body was removed from the Red Square mausoleum; the monuments commemorating him were taken down and destroyed. During glasnost, the openness period initiated by Gorbachev, some state archives revealing the extent of Stalin’s purges and mass repressions were made public. My own grandfather, Aleksandr Bakunin, who devoted his entire life to the history of the Russia’s Communist Party and its accomplishments, set to work in his seventies to research the newly available materials and write a trilogy about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. In popular literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made stunning revelations about mass repressions and his personal experiences as a prisoner in a labour camp in his novel The Gulag Archipelago, first openly published in a Russian literary magazine in 1989. In Gorbachev’s days Nikolai Svanidze, a popular Russian TV host, historian and journalist – related to Stalin through his first wife, Ekaterina (Cato) Svanidze – declared that Stalin and Hitler were cut from the same cloth on national television. I do not believe that such a statement would be made by the Russian media today. 

An example of a “Red Tsar” calendar

With knowledge about collectivisation and famine of the 1930s, mass arrests and forced labour, the culture of terror and the totalitarian governance, it is difficult to understand the current sentiment in Russia which makes it acceptable to print Stalin’s image onto T-shirts and mugs. Russians, who approve of Stalin, credit him with turning around the backward agrarian economy with its mostly rural population into an economic and scientific powerhouse, responsible for sending the first man into space. It was allegedly Churchill who said that “Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of atomic weapons”. These sympathisers hail rapid industrialisation and economic progress, forgetting its costs. Mayakovskiy put it well in his poem about the construction of Kuznetsk: “The lips are turning blue from the cold, but the lips recite in unison: ‘In four years this will be a garden city!’”

Stalinists are especially vocal in giving their hero credit for winning the war. By the end of 1930s, the Soviet Union had become the largest economy in Europe and in the 1940s it was the defence industry that carried the Soviet campaign against Hitler. Stalin united people and inspired them to fight the enemy both on the front line and in the factories, according to those who believe in Stalin as “the Leader”. “The European nations are being ungrateful”, they say. “Stalin saved them from the Nazis.” It is inconvenient to remember that it was Stalin who had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939 and had been falsely assured that Germany would not invade the Soviet Union. Stalin disregarded several reports from his own intelligence agents and defected German spies about the advancing of Hitler’s army in 1941. Millions of lives were lost as a result in the first months of the war. As for the gratitude, the Baltic and the eastern European nations are quite right to dispute the post-war reorganisation of Europe, implemented after the Yalta conference, when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to divide their spheres of influence.

After the war, the USSR became the second most powerful nation in the world and a force to be reckoned with in geopolitics, economics and technology. Previously illiterate peasants, Soviet citizens enrolled in universities, became engineers and doctors, went to the theatre and cinema, read and became part of the Soviet miracle. There is a great deal of nostalgia among the older generation in Russia, who mourn the ”golden decades” of the Soviet Union and wish for Russia’s international status to climb again. “We lived better with Stalin than with anyone else who came to power after him. He looked after us. Today only oligarchs live well,” said a Russian woman in her late seventies. One Russian blogger writes that mass repressions were necessary to align the Soviet consciousness to the new ideology, to replace individualism with collective responsibility. He believes that the terror was necessary to maintain order. There is also rising support among the younger generation who see parallels between Putin and Stalin, the two rulers who favour autocracy and ubiquitous state control.

Already in his seventies, my grandfather wrote two books about the genesis and the evolution of the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. His third book was meant to be about the fall of Stalinism. Despite several heart attacks and a stroke, he continued working. He died from the fatal heart attack, his book unfinished. Perhaps, it was meant to be. Section 86 of the German Criminal Code makes it illegal to display Nazi images and to hail Hitler in Germany. In Russia, Stalin has never been similarly condemned. The Russian government ostensibly does not object to the new statues of Stalin being erected just 60 years after they had been taken down. The nation that has forgotten its own history is terrifying.