Last updated: 13 February, 2013

Tough questions in Israel over mystery prisoner’s death

The blanket ban on reporting details of the detention and apparent suicide of an Australian prisoner jailed in Israel has raised pressing questions about the relevance of censorship in a digital age.

The mysterious case of “Prisoner X” briefly emerged in 2010 in an online news report which was immediately taken down due to a gag order, only to resurface on Tuesday when Australia’s ABC news said he was an Australian working for Mossad.

Although the news spread like wildfire across social networks, Israel’s media outlets were uncharacteristically silent, gagged by a set of tight restrictions which barred them from even mentioning the ABC report.

The silence was only broken when three Israeli MPs used their parliamentary immunity to raise the issue in at the Knesset, forcing the censor to ease its grip and permit coverage of the ABC report.

Aluf Benn, editor of the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper said the case highlighted the old-world thinking among Israel’s top intelligence brass.

“I imagined yesterday that I met Mossad chief Tamir Pardo and that I tried to persuade him to remove himself for a day or two from the cloak-and-dagger world he lives in … But then I remembered that Pardo is still living in the previous century, when information is kept in regimes’ safes,” he wrote.

Shortly after the ABC report emerged, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called in the country’s top editors to ask them to cooperate by withholding publication of information about an incident that was “very embarrassing to a certain government agency,” Haaretz said, in a clear allusion to Mossad.

For Israel’s security establishment, the press was simply an extension of the state which could be controlled at will, Benn wrote.

“They all find it hard to come to terms with the concept of a free media operating in a democratic state, and they try to recruit the press to work with them, offering journalists a combination of confidential information and the threat of arrest.”

Under Israeli law, violation of a gag order is a serious offence, punishable by imprisonment.

Yuval Dror, a digital media expert said it was clear that in the digital age, censorship and gag orders simply do not work.

“What worked in the years after the establishment of the state gradually became a predictable game in which journalists leaked information forbidden for publication in Israel.

“Their foreign counterparts would publish it in the foreign press, which Israeli journalists were permitted to quote,” he said.

Such a scenario most recently played out on January 30 in the case of an Israeli air strike on a military complex near Damascus.

When the military censor prevented the Israeli press from reporting any details of the strike, they circumvented the ban by simply picking up reports on the strike from foreign media outlets.

But in this case, the legal ban was so sweeping that it even barred publication of details in a foreign media report.

“Sometimes the mishap is so severe and the excuses so lame that it is no longer enough to limit reporting to ‘foreign news sources’ and more extreme tactics are required: … sweeping gag orders and the censorship of information readily available at the click of a mouse,” wrote Benn.

“The results are ridiculous and, instead of hushing up the blunder, they merely shine a spotlight on it.”

Dror said attempts to gag the media would end in failure.

“A dead letter. This phrase is expressed in its purest form when considering gag orders in the Internet age,” he said.

“There is no way, whether practical or theoretical, to stem the flow of information exploding across Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the social media — media whose underlying feature is to encourage users to share content.

“Viral distribution of content that intrigues millions of people is one of them. The attempt to control the digital world and a hyper-global media event — which within minutes is uncontrollable — is doomed to complete and embarrassing failure.”