Israeli media and officials are outraged over a government order forcing censorship of coverage of claims that an Australian-Israeli Mossad agent was secretly detained for months until he committed suicide in 2010. Israel confirmed the allegations.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) shed new light on the top-secret case about a man previously known only as ‘Prisoner X.’ It was reported that the man was 34-year old Australian-born Ben Zygier from Melbourne, who was recruited by Israel’s secret service Mossad.
After ABC’s broke the news, the Israeli Prime Minister's Office summoned the Editors Committee, consisting of all of the editors and owners of major Israeli media outlets, for an emergency meeting with security officials to ask them not to report on the story – effective implementing a nationwide publishing ban.
The ban was justified over fears that publishing further details on the case would be “very embarrassing to a certain government agency,” Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported. After the meeting, the mention of ABC’s report disappeared from all Israeli news media.
Israel's Justice Ministry confirmed that 'Prisoner X,' which it still has not named, killed himself in custody in 2010.
The ministry maintained that 'Prisoner X' was held in compliance with a court order, and that his family had been notified.
Strict censorship is unusual for Israel, a Reuters report explained – typically, when the media is censored for security reasons, Israeli outlets are still allowed to cite news from foreign sources.
The details of the meeting were kept secret, prompting Israeli lawmakers to demand the release of information on it.
The editors’ decision not to publish anything about ‘Prisoner X’ has led many in Israel to speak out against the media’s cooperation with the government’s ban.
No clear response followed: "I cannot answer these questions because the matter does not fall under the authority of the Justice Minister,"Haaretz quoted Justice Minister Yaakov Ne'eman as saying. "But there is no doubt that if true, the matter must be looked into."
"The phenomenon of journalists volunteering to censor information at the authorities' request is patently undemocratic. I had hoped that it had been abandoned dozens of years ago," Zahava Gal-On, a Member of the Knesset – Israel’s legislative branch – and the Zionist social-democratic party Meretz told Haaretz.
Israeli lawmakers are calling for the prime minister and public security minister to appear before the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committees to clarify the matter. "It is unthinkable that information passed on to the Editors Committee in order to conceal it from the public will be kept from Knesset [Israeli legislative branch] members," Gal-On said.
Nitzan Horowitz, a member of the Zionist social-democratic political party Meretz, told the Knesset – Israel’s legislative branch – that he contacted the Attorney-General when reports of the secret prisoner first emerged.
Horowitz said he argued that the detainment was illegal, but was assured of its propriety and legality.
"Does this not indicate a basic failure in the law enforcement system? Sweeping everything into a deep and even draconian secrecy, has no place in democratic regimes," the Jerusalem Post quoted Horowitz as saying.
Several Israeli media outlets have also spoken out against the censorship.
Editor-in-chief of Haaretz Newspaper Aluf Benn wrote an editorial criticizing the ban, and arguing that it has no real power to suppress information in the age of the Internet and social services. “Israel's censorship laws shine a spotlight instead of hushing up the blunder.
Government censorship in modern times – be it in Israel, Syria or Iran,” Benn wrote.
Censorship “becomes a pathetic attempt to turn back the clock to a time before WikiLeaks, Facebook and Twitter, and before bloggers who don't give two hoots about the censor,” he said.
Benn argued that despite the fact that security officials continue to live in the past century “when information is kept in regimes' safes,” behind “highly fortified walls,” there is now “an entire world without restrictions and without constraints, in which people are free to exchange information, opinions and even photographs.”
After fierce public outcry, domestic media outlets were granted permission to quote foreign reports about Zygier, but not to publish any original material, Israel Radio reported.
It is the second time Israel has tried to ban reporting related to ‘Prisoner X.’ The first ban was implemented in March 2010, after Israeli website Ynet first reported on a mysterious prisoner being held in compete secrecy in one of Israel’s prisons.
The article was quickly taken off the site because of a publishing ban, which prohibited all Israeli media outlets from writing about the man who had been referred to as “Prisoner X,”"Mr X" and "Cell 15 in Ayalon prison."