Index Index – International free speech round up 14/02/13

A Bahraini teenager has been killed by security forces today (14 February) during demonstrations to mark the second anniversary of the Bahrain revolution. Al Jazeeera reported the 16-year-old boy’s name as Ali Ahmed Ibrahim al-Jazeeri. He allegedly died from internationally banned exploding bullets after Bahraini authorities opened fire on the mounting crowds in Al DAih, near the capital Manama. The interior ministry announced a death on its Twitter this morning, but didn’t disclose any further details.

bahrain14feb bilad - Demotix

  — A child painted with the national colours of Bahrain during the uprisings second anniversary protests, in which a teenager was killed

Evidence given by Jeremy Paxman and a senior BBC official to the BBC internal inquiry into its handling of the Jimmy Savile affair will be removed from public transcripts detailing the investigations evidence. Lawyers examining the soon to be published transcripts said that evidence from the Newsnight presenter and global news director Peter Horrocks was potentially defamatory, and was particularly critical of how BBC management handled the criticism arising from the Savile scandal in Autumn last year. The findings of the inquiry, overseen by former head of Sky News Nick Pollard, were published by the BBC in December. The report examined the corporation’s handling of Newsnight’s dropped investigation into the case in 2011, and its later response after Savile was allegedly outed as a paedophile in October 2012. At the time the transcript was produced, those giving evidence reportedly didn’t know the report was to be made public. Overall, less than 10 per cent of the Pollard review transcripts will be redacted before publication.

A powerful new firewall used to censor online activity could be established in Pakistan within the next month. The Pakistani government has allegedly been working with the same technology companies that helped Iran, China and Libya curb online dissent, to allow authorities to block pornographic or blasphemous online content. Pakistan’s interior minister Rehman Malik confirmed the reports on Twitter, saying The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) were in their final negotiations for obtaining the software. The PTA originally tried to introduce a similar $10million measure in 2012, which was quashed after being met with fierce public opposition. Whilst Pakistan claims to use the firewall to protect the country’s internet users from blasphemous and pornographic content, it has already blocked a number of unrelated sites, such as the US-based Buzzfeed.

An NHS whistleblower under investigation for high mortality rates has voiced concerns over patient safety despite a legal gag preventing him from speaking out. Gary Walker warned civil servants that he had been given the same choices that had resulted in the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust scandal. He was fired from his job as chief executive of United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust in 2010 for gross professional misconduct, allegedly because he swore during a meeting. Walker claims he was fired for refusing to meet Whitehall targets for non-emergency patients and then gagged as part of a reported £500,000 settlement emerging from an unfair work dismissal tribunal. He said he was instructed by the East Midlands Strategic Health Authority to meet the 18-week non-emergency target “whatever the demand” and was told to resign when he refused to do so. East Midlands Strategic Health Authority refuted the claims. The Francis report published last week recommended that gagging orders on NHS staff be lifted, orders which Walker said were due to a “culture of fear” within the service. His case has been raised in the commons.

The Israeli government has admitted that “Prisoner X”, the mystery detainee who later committed suicide in solitary confinement, was in fact a spy for Israel. Ben Zygier, as he is now known from reports, was part of Israel’s external intelligence forces known as the Mossad and was arrested in 2010 for charges which still remain unspecified, though they were revealed to be serious. The detention of Australian-Israeli Zygier was reportedly enshrouded in such secrecy that even the prison guards didn’t know his true identity or alleged offence. The information was revealed after a gagging order which forbade the media in Israel from reporting on the case was partially lifted by the Israeli government on 13 February.

Israel’s “Prisoner X” case and the creep of military censorship

OPINION: In June 2010, Israel’s Ynet website reported on the detention, and then six months later on the death, of unknown detainee “Prisoner X” in solitary confinement.

A gag order issued by an Israeli court soon after put an end to any reporting on the case, or even reporting of the order itself. “Prisoner X” became a byword in the Israeli media for yet one more of the kind of security-related stories that no-one quite knows the truth of, and probably never will.

Nothing more was heard until this week, when an Australian TV documentary claimed that the man in question was one Ben Zygier, a 34-year-old father-of-two and an Australian citizen who had moved to Israel a decade earlier.

Zygier, who called himself Ben Alon in Israel, was apparently held in the cell — built to hold Yigal Amir, the assassin of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin — for a number of months before he was found hanged, and his body flown to Melbourne a week later. His father Geoffrey, a grandee of the Jewish community there, has refused to speak to the media regarding his son.

Military censorship and wide-reaching gag orders are a fact of life for Israeli journalists. But this gag order was absolute. Articles which appeared on a number of Israeli websites yesterday noting the Australian programme were soon removed.

Even more extraordinary was the meeting called that afternoon by the Prime Minister’s office convening the so-called “Editors’ Committee”, a grouping set up in the early years of the state through which senior media figures could be briefed on secret information if they agreed to not publish it.

Historically this was a sort of gentleman’s agreement between the hacks and the establishment, who in the nascent days of Israel were understood to be more or less on the same side. Now, the annual meeting between the PM and the Editors’ Committee has become largely a matter of show, open to the scrutiny of other journalists. Self-censorship is managed more obliquely.

The Prisoner X situation was so extraordinary that a number of MKs used parliamentary privilege yesterday to ask the outgoing Justice Minister, Yaakov Ne’eman about the Australian reports.  Zahava Gal-On, head of the left-wing Meretz faction pouring scorn on the implied complicity of the Israeli media.

“I want to hear your stance on the fact that journalists volunteer to censor information at the government’s request,” she said. “Is it proper that the Prime Minister’s Office invited the Editors’ Committee to prevent news from being publicised? Today, we hear that in a country that claims to be a civilized democracy, journalists cooperate with the government, and that anonymous prisoners, who no one knew existed, commit suicide.”

The gag order has now been softened, perhaps due to the MKs’ questions,  and Israeli media are now reporting on the Australian story. But it’s the press rather than politicians who should be charged with exposing this kind of event.

There is an argument to be made that there is a need for some level of censorship to protect national security. But the censors need to choose their battles.

It’s stupid and self-destructive to try and suppress a story after it appears on a foreign media outlet. The suppression will inevitably serves to draw additional attention to the story.

The danger is that security becomes its own justification for censorship with a creeping reach.

Daniella Peled is editor at the Institute of War and Peace Reporting and writes widely on the Middle East