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.

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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era