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'Prisoner X': Censorship and gag orders in the age of new media

The ‘Prisoner X’ affair was sensitive enough for Israel to use all of its censorship tools at once: the military censor, gag orders and the ‘editors committee.’ But was the effort by the Prime Minister’s Office entirely about national security, or did it have to do with protecting those responsible for the mess? And what should the affair teach us about the ability to keep information from the public in this technological age?

Ben Zygier, alleged Mossad agent who was found dead in his cell in 2010 (photo: ABC Australia)

The affair known as the death of “Prisoner X” is becoming an interesting test case for the effect of new media on state secrets and the relations between journalists and the security establishment.

A short summary: the events themselves took place in 2010. According to the investigative piece by Australian network ABC (seen below), a Melbourne-born Jew named Ben Zygier, who immigrated to Israel in 2000, was locked in the most guarded prison cell in Israel – the one built to hold Yigal Amir, Prime Minister Rabin’s killer. His identity was kept secret and even prison guards weren’t allowed to contact him. A report on the existence of Prisoner X appeared on the Israeli news site Ynet, and immediately disappeared.

Several months later, the media learned that the prisoner was found dead in his cell, apparently after committing suicide. A report appeared on Ynet, only to disappear again.

The Australian investigative report that revealed Prisoner X’s identity and linked him to the Mossad caught the Israeli establishment by surprise. Reports based on the Australian piece appeared on Israeli internet sites, only to be removed within the hour. However, screenshots and detailed accounts – as well as the original Australian piece – began circulating in the new media, along with new pictures of Ben Zygier.

The Prime Minister’s Office called an urgent meeting with the “editors committee” in an attempt to try and prevent further information from reaching the public, but the decisive turn happened in the afternoon when four left-wing Knesset members – Ahmad Tibi (United Arab List), Dov Khenin (Hadash), Zehava Gal-On (Meretz) and Nachman Shai (Labor) – used the justice minister’s appearance in the Knesset to question him about the affair, thus revealing it on live television and giving the Israeli media an opportunity to deal with the story again. As a result, the gag order was partially lifted early the next morning and the original Australian piece was broadcast by the mainstream Israeli media. However, no further information can be published without the censor’s approval.

Here is the ABC report:

 

Who’s who in the world of censoring?

Israel is a very intimate society, where people generate a feeling of first-hand knowledge about government issues. But it is also has very strict supervision of the public debate. Observers often miss this nuance, confusing vigorous debate of opinions with the relative shortage of facts and information.

The state has two main methods to control and censor information: through the military censor and through gag orders.

Israeli law requires that any publication regarding security issues pass through the military censor. In other words, any news item involving the army, the Mossad, the Shin Bet or nuclear facilities that one sees in Israeli media has passed censorship, and “secret” parts were already taken out. (The censor usually doesn’t supervise blogs and social media, which formally fall under its legal jurisdiction.) The censor is especially strict on nuclear issues as part of Israel’s opacity policy.

The second method of withholding information from the public is through gag orders. Gag orders are issued by the courts, usually without any media representative present to object. They are then faxed to all media organizations. Anyone – and not just media organizations – who has knowledge of a gag order should refrain from publishing information concerning the issue at hand.

Today, many gag orders include a clause regarding the existence of the gag order itself, meaning the media cannot even say it is under a gag order on a certain issue (this was the way the gag order was phrased in the Anat Kamm affair). Broad, across-the-board gag orders are very common today, especially in criminal investigations, to the point that some politicians have demanded new legislation to limit their use.

A third mechanism for censorship is more voluntary, through the editors committee. This arrangement began in 1942 (before the establishment of the state itself), as a coordinating committee between the Hebrew press and the security establishment. As part of the arrangement, editors-in-chief of media organizations receive secret information from the government in exchange for not publishing it. The editors committee – a prime example of the proximity between the Hebrew press and the Israeli security establishment – lost much of its relevance in the 1990s, and is rarely used for its original function today.

What makes the Prisoner X affair unique is that all three measures were taken. There was a gag order (apparently including a ban on acknowledging the existence of a gag order), the censor was actively taking down news reports, and the Prime Minister’s Office held an urgent meeting with the editors committee. The editors were asked to keep the existence of the meeting a secret as well, but Haaretz, which is not part of this arrangement, revealed it in the early afternoon yesterday.

Safeguarding secrets or protecting politicians and security officials?

It was pretty clear by the early morning yesterday that the Prime Minister’s Office (which is in charge of the Mossad) and the Defense Department (under which the military censor operates) are fighting a losing battle. Once a report was out there in the international media, it was impossible to stop it from circulating without taking Chinese-style Internet censorship measures. Plus, the whole rationale was flawed: there is nothing “secret” about something that the entire world knows, so why should Israelis be the only ones who are forbidden access to the information? If anything, such behavior reveals the deeper motive behind most acts of censorship: it is less about protecting state security and more about the protection of individuals and institutions from public scrutiny.

This leads us to another unique feature in the Prisoner X affair: in the past, Israeli journalists gave tips and even whole stories that couldn’t be published locally to foreign media, so they could then use the information in their own reports. “Quoting foreign sources” became synonymous with, or an open code word for, revealing information that is usually censored or kept secret in Israel. For some issues, it is government policy to allow only such quotes; once I submitted a piece to the military censor, which insisted I add the phrase “according to foreign sources” every now and then in the text.

However, this time the censor and the PMO tried to prevent the Hebrew publication of the existing Australian investigative piece. This act is so extraordinary that it suggests the potential embarrassment for the security establishment in this affair is considerably higher than in other cases. It could also mean that revealing Ben Zygier’s identity itself is the problem, and perhaps the moment his picture and name were revealed, more information regarding his actions could emerge.

It is worth noting that Israel had several Prisoner Xs in the past (but not more than a few), all of them ex-agents or double agents. In some cases, those prisoners were forced to cooperate with the security establishment by keeping their own identities secret if they wished to be let out of indefinite solitary confinement. Naturally, they agreed. It is not known whether Ben Zygier was given such an option.

As this analysis by secret services reporter Yossi Melman details (Hebrew), this practice stopped during the Rabin government – which was a unique moment for human rights in Israel – and the troubling aspect of the current Prisoner X affair is that the government has apparently gone back to the practice of making its own citizens disappear and holding them without trial and in secrecy.

Keeping secrets in the age of new media

The latest turns and revelations in the Prisoner X affair show just how difficult it is to withhold information that is already circulating on the Internet – a better word would probably be “impossible.” It is actually very strange that state officials didn’t understand that sooner. Think about it: as the newspaper editors were being briefed by the Mossad yesterday, more and more of the information that they were supposed to hold back surfaced on social networks.

In a matter of hours, I got to see (mostly through Twitter) not only the name and pictures of Ben Zygier that appeared in the ABC piece but also new unseen photos, the phone numbers and identities of his relatives in Israel and in Australia, links to cached versions and screenshots of all the censored pieces, his profiles on various social networking sites (alas, not Facebook, which is the real site to find you all you need to know about someone) and even the invitation to his funeral in Melbourne. In the old world, this could have been the product of several weeks of investigation conducted on three continents. Now it took a few hours of Google digging by unpaid amateurs.

However – and this is a very big “however” – all the real breakthroughs in this story came through the “old” mainstream media. Starting with the early pieces on Ynet through to the item mentioning the editors committee in Haaretz, and most importantly, the ABC investigation – the mainstream media made the big leaps forward while the new media’s main function was distributing the content, aggregating it, filling in certain gaps and minor details, and finally, bringing down the walls of censorship.

One should also not diminish the part members of Knesset – anther “old world” institution – played in the final push for the publication of the story. The current Knesset has many young and aggressive members, including several journalists, but the ones who surprised the justice minister and used their parliamentary immunity to violate censorship rules were four veterans leftist politicians, who immediately recognized the opportunity presented by the live TV feed from parliament.

I also think that while it’s harder to keep secrets, state agencies can adapt to such situations and they will work harder to keep the core of their information away from the public. The unknown still outweighs the known facts in the case of Prisoner X, with the reason for his imprisonment being the greatest unsolved mystery – not to mention the circumstances of his death in a constantly-monitored “suicide-proof” cell.

I think that we should also be troubled by the lack of accountability or supervision on the central hubs of information in the new media world – namely Google (including all its products, and especially Gmail), Facebook and Twitter. Does it make sense for Google to read the emails of journalists and their sources? For Facebook to be able to make pages and pictures disappear with a single click? What will happen when the stories being investigated deal with those information-corporates’ most vital interests? In other words, who watches the watchmen?

And this also should be said: issues of freedom of information and transparency also have to do with the political preferences and interest of journalists and of the society in which they operate. At any given moment there are hundreds of Palestinians, including minors, who Israel holds without trial. Their existence is no secret, and there is no gag order hovering over their cases. Yet how often do they make it to the front page of newspapers? Eventually, self-censorship and the things one doesn’t want to know remain the bigger problem.

Related
Disappearing articles and the dead prisoner affair (‘Mr. X’): A timeline
TIMELINE: The Anat Kamm affair
Ayalon Prison: Nameless inmate commits suicide, then disappears

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  • COMMENTS

    1. The hubris involved in attempting to suppress the disscemination of a story from Australia reflects a complete lack of independent oversight: spoiled by the immunity of “security,” one does not even contemplate the absurdity of the act. True oversight, by independent judges who know how to say “no,” sharpens the mind. The courts’ failure to stand apart from the ideology of security harms the constitution of Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Vadim

      Hey.

      Good review, but I think you got several (small) things wrong.

      The gag order is made by a court and the military censorship as well as Knesset members and newspapers are bound by it. The knesset members who brought this issue up did not violate military censorship but a court order – AKA break the law.

      “The Prisoner X affair show just how difficult it is to withhold information that is already circulating on the Internet – a better word would probably be “impossible.” It is actually very strange that state officials didn’t understand that sooner”

      This is wrong. The state does understand this and a request to lift the gag order was made very promptly after the publication. The thing is – it must pass through a court and we all know how fast they work in Israel.

      Reply to Comment

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