JERUSALEM — Israel's military censor, which has long served as the country's guardian of state secrets, is suddenly under the microscope following a pair of sensitive reports broken by the international media.
An Australian broadcaster's story this week about the suspicious death of an Australian-Israeli prisoner held by Israel, following foreign reports of an Israeli airstrike in Syria last month, have revealed the limits of Israel's decades-long censorship rules and court-imposed gag orders. In today's Internet age, many are now asking whether these restrictions are even relevant.
The idea behind the objections is that in today's communications environment, when everybody is essentially a publisher with a potentially worldwide audience, to censor "the media" is somehow akin to censoring conversation itself, which Israel, as a democracy, would never conceive of doing.
"(Gag orders) are a tool that can't deal with the media reality we live in: a globalized, hyper-connected, hyper-fast world. There is no real way to control the spread of information," said Yuval Dror, an expert in digital communications.
The censorship office, which emerged from an agreement between editors and the government in the 1950s, has long wielded heavy control over reporting of Israel's military and intelligence forays abroad and over domestic affairs it wants to keep under wraps.
Journalists writing about potentially sensitive news must clear their stories with the censor's office before they can be published. It has the authority to block or even delete reports deemed threatening to national security, and violations of the rules can result in penalties, including jail time, for journalists. Israel's security establishment also often seeks court-issued gag orders on certain cases.
For years, the system was mostly able to prevent the release of sensitive secrets. But with the advent of blogs, Twitter and global news websites, the censor's office has appeared increasingly archaic.
Today, Israeli media are forced to quote "foreign sources" after international media divulge details, such as the reports of an Israeli airstrike last month on a weapons convoy in Syria.
Underscoring the limitations of censor's office was this week's report by Australia's national broadcaster that an Australian-Israeli man who worked for Israel's Mossad spy agency had hanged himself in an Israeli prison.
While the report was easily accessible on the Internet, and Twitter and the blogosphere were abuzz with details about the case, the censor banned local media from discussing it.
Adding to the confusion, the prime minister's office urgently summoned editors of the nation's major newspapers, apparently to discuss the case while ordering them not to write about it. Meanwhile, three lawmakers, who enjoy parliamentary immunity from censorship restrictions, gave speeches on the floor of parliament urging the government to respond to the Australian report.
Even so, newspaper headlines early Wednesday quoted the lawmakers' speeches but made no reference to the Australian report, which was still under gag order.
Later Wednesday, the censor finally permitted local media to cite the Australian report, and details of the case flooded all the main radio, TV and news websites. Much of the discussion focused on the relevance of efforts to contain information, both through the censorship and court-issued gag orders.
"It's the 21st century. You can't prevent these things from being exposed," said Yossi Melman, a security affairs commentator whose own article on the Australian report was removed shortly after being posted on the Walla! news site because of censorship. "And (Israel's leaders) don't want to learn a thing from the past."
The censor's office declined comment when asked about its relevancy in the digital age, but demanded this report be submitted for review and asked for changes in some of the wording, engaging in a semantic debate with Associated Press reporters.
In a front-page article, Aluf Benn, editor in chief of the prestigious Haaretz daily, accused the country's security establishment of being stuck in a long-past era.
"Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are awash with people forwarding the information, sharing links to foreign websites, expressing opinions — and utterly ignoring those who are making pathetic attempts to turn back the clock to a time before WikiLeaks, and before bloggers who don't give two hoots about the censor," he wrote.
The Australian report is potentially explosive in Israel because of the circumstances of the prisoner's incarceration. It is not clear what crime he committed, but considering his alleged links to the Mossad, any leaked information has the potential to affect Israel's intelligence activities. It also is unclear how the man managed to commit suicide in a facility that is under 24-hour surveillance. The report said he died in the same cell once used by Yigal Amir, the Jewish ultranationalist who assassinated then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
The Australian ABC reported that the prisoner, who it referred to as Ben Zygier, migrated from Australia to Israel in 2000 and had worked for Mossad. It reported that his incarceration was top secret, but did not say why he had been arrested.
According to the report, the affair was first exposed in June 2010, when the Israeli news site Ynet briefly reported on the existence of a prisoner — identified only as Prisoner X — whose crimes were unknown. The report was removed from the site shortly after it was posted, apparently by the censor.
Ynet then reported on Dec. 27, 2010, that a prisoner had committed suicide while in solitary confinement two weeks earlier. That report, which said jailers took him down from his noose and unsuccessfully tried to revive him, was also quickly removed.
ABC strongly suggested that prisoner was Ben Zygier.
After the ABC report aired and was posted online, at least two Israeli news sites published — and then swiftly removed — articles citing the report.
The Haaretz daily then reported about the emergency meeting called by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, where he urged the editors of the major news outlets to refrain from publishing details about the "embarrassing" matter.
Almost instantly, foreign press began publishing stories about the affair online. Bloggers were deliberating the circumstances of the man's death and a flurry of speculation filled Twitter feeds. Some Twitter users, including Israelis, circulated what they claimed were photos of Zygier and his family's phone number.
Late Wednesday, after a day's uproar over the issue, Israel finally confirmed that an Australian prisoner had been held under a false name and that his family knew.
Israeli authorities have also sought to suppress knowledge of the detention of Arab engineer Dirar Abu Sisi, who vanished after boarding a train in Ukraine on Feb. 19, 2011, only to resurface in Israel three weeks later in detention.
In that case, an Israeli court issued a gag order on his detention. But reports quickly surfaced out of Ukraine and the Gaza Strip about his disappearance and incarceration in Israel.
Abu Sisi was ultimately accused of masterminding Hamas' rocket program and training fighters in the Gaza Strip and was charged with a number of crimes.
In 2010, a court-ordered ban prevented local reporting of the case of Anat Kamm, a former female soldier charged with leaking more than 2,000 military documents to a newspaper. The case was reported extensively in blogs and foreign press, which Israeli media were initially forced to cite before the gag order was lifted.
Miri Regev, a lawmaker and former chief censor, conceded to Army Radio that the censorship may be "draconian" but said Israel has legitimate security reasons to continue it. She said Israel's decision to ban reporting on the ABC report was a step too far.
"We could have avoided these 16 hours (of silence). We could have published the information that was published today," she said. "We would have avoided the discussion surrounding this."
Nonetheless, she wrote on her Facebook page that the attorney general should investigate the lawmakers who broke the gag order and urged an investigation into who leaked information about the prisoner to the media.