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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times