A Futile Gagging Order for the ‘Prisoner X’ Scandal

This post is part of our International Relations & Security coverage.

Graffiti of newspaper reader in Tel Aviv, Israel

Graffiti of newspaper reader in Tel Aviv, Israel. Photo by Helga Tawil Souri on flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

After Australia’s ABC aired an exposé on ‘Prisoner X’ on February 12, Israeli media was quick to follow up on the shocking claims that Ben Zygier, an Australian-born Israeli citizen who worked for Mossad, was secretly detained in a maximum-security prison for months before allegedly committing suicide in 2010. However, reports on the scandal were pulled soon after they emerged. The Prime Minister’s Office called an urgent meeting of the editors of all major Israeli news outlets to ask for their cooperation in silencing the story. For a whole day, Israeli media were forbidden from reporting on the story, even as it was making headlines worldwide and Israelis disseminated the news in social media and blogs. Only after three leftist members of the Knesset used their parliamentary immunity to speak on the issue did opaque headlines appear, and an Israeli court lifted the gag order.

The Israeli government used the possible threat to national security to justify its decision to censor the ‘Prisoner X’ scandal. However, many Israeli bloggers remain far from convinced that national security was the main reason behind the pulling of the story.

Noam Shiezaf argued on +972 Magazine:

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.

Gal Mor, the editor of Holes in the Net, also disputed the claim that censorship was used to protect national security:

Like in previous scandals (Motke Kedar, who was also dubbed ‘Prisoner X’; Marcus Klinberg; the Lavon Affair; Bus 300) we were told that exposing the affair endangers national security, to the point of endangering its existence…When each of these secret affairs were exposed, the world did not end, and we found out that in the worst case this is a diplomatic incident, and an embarrassment to an intelligence agency, and exposing it contributed greatly to Israel’s democracy and to internal inspections of the agencies. And even if there was a justification for this silencing, we live in a global alley, in which Facebook, Twitter and blogs are only a click away.

The attempts to prevent the dissemination of the ‘Prisoner X’ story after the airing of the exposé shows that Israeli authorities have not yet adjusted to the new media era. In a country where almost half of the population has a Facebook account, slapping a gag order on a report readily available online, only creates greater interest in the story.

ISN logoThis post and its translations to Spanish, Arabic and French were commissioned by the International Security Network (ISN) as part of a partnership to seek out citizen voices on international relations and security issues worldwide. This post was first published on the ISN blog, see similar stories here.

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