Knesset members who led to the loosening of the gag order on the Prisoner X case
got some back-up today from what could seem an unlikely source: the Chief Israel
Military Censor Brig.-Gen. Sima Vaknin-Gil.
Speaking at a conference hosted by Bar-Ilan University’s Center for Media and Law, Faculty of Law, and the School of Communication, Vaknin-Gil said “as long as I am in my post, the censor will not work to
shut up Knesset members.”
Vaknin-Gil joined a panel of journalists and
academics discussing issues of military censorship and the Israeli press, with a
focus on the recent case of Prisoner X, which sparked a public discussion about
the role of the military censor in the internet age.
that “censorship and democracy don’t go hand in hand,” but added that “in any
instance where someone is sent secretly by the state for our defense, I will not
weigh the issues of freedom of information.”
She also said that the
“management of this issue was not right” in regards to the handling of the
publication of the Prisoner X affair by Israeli security and legal authorities,
but did not elaborate.
The so-called Prisoner X story came to light in
the Israeli press after a report Australian television’s ABC, that claimed that
an Australian citizen immigrated to Israel and joined the Mossad, before being
jailed years later and dying in Ayalon prison, with his very existence was kept
a closely-guarded secret.
Once the report aired, the censor contacted
Israeli media outlets saying that the story could not be reported on, even in
terms of what had already been published in the foreign press. Later that night,
a number of Knesset MKs used their parliamentary immunity to speak about the
case from the floor of the Knesset, leaving the door open for foreign reports on
the case to be discussed in the Israeli media.
Those left-wing MKs who
spoke about the issue at the Knesset were met by criticism by right-wing MKs, as
well as by a call for them to be investigated.
Vaknin-Gil was joined by a
number of journalists, including long-time Kol Yisrael military affairs
correspondent Carmela Menashe, who said “it’s not my job, or your job, to check
if it hurts the security of the state. I will personally censor the name of a
soldier who has fallen in battle if his family doesn’t know yet, or if the army
is performing operations within enemy territory, or on the way to Uganda or
something, I won’t report about it.”
Menashe added that for the most part
reporters practice their own self-censorship in Israel, limiting what they
report in order to not jeopardize losing access to security
“This hug they get from the Defense Minister or the Chief of
Staff, who sit with them and eat with them, encourages some of them to censor
themselves and not print things.”
Vaknin-Gil at one point argued with
Haaretz Editor-in- Chief Aluf Benn over the paper’s decision to report the
calling of the “editors’ meeting” on the day of the report, saying that the
publication crossed a red line.
She also argued that the censor still has
an effect, even in the age of the internet.
“Why did the country only
find out about this story in 2013? Why not in 2009? It was written about here
and there, online, in 2009 but did it get much attention?” she asked, the
implication being that with major Israeli outlets unable to report on the story,
it was left to other news sources like blogs outside Israel, which did not have
the same authority.
For his part, Benn praised the military censor
system, saying that it takes the decision out of the hands of the editors about
what can and cannot be printed, and leaves it up to the censor to make the
Ronen Bergman, intelligence and security correspondent for
Yedioth Aharonoth, said that in the case of the Prisoner X story, the military
censor and the gag order gave the story a sort of credibility, when otherwise it
may have just blown over.
“This story could have just been seen as some
report in the foreign press that could have blown over, but once foreign
journalists in Israel see the secrecy and the gag orders on the Israeli press
and on them, it gives it [the story] a stamp of authenticity.”