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