Comment: The Prisoner X factor

Once a report surfaces online, is disseminated faster than one can press "favorite," another set of rules needs to be brought into play.

Ayalon prison 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Ayalon prison 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
When you get a phone call from the IDF Censor’s Office at its initiative, you know it’s generally not going to be good news.
A few minutes before the call Tuesday morning, The Jerusalem Post’s police reporter Ben Hartman had pointed out the startling story on the website of ABC News in Australia detailing the death of Ben Zygier, a.k.a.
Ben Alon, the Australian-Israeli who was found hanged in a high-security cell at Ayalon Prison in Ramle in late 2010.
We agreed that he should write a story that day based on the ABC report with any additional information he could gather on the case of Prisoner X, as Zygier had been referred to in previous sketchy reports around the time of his death.
Within minutes, a paranoid editor might say as if it had been listening in on the conversation, the IDF Censor’s Office called and the duty officer ceremoniously announced that any information related to Prisoner X was under a court-issued gag order, and any publication of details of the story – or mentioning the gag order – would be akin to breaking the law and subject to possible prosecution and fine.
I tried to reason with him, explaining that in past cases of sensitive issues related to security, we had been allowed to publish stories quoting foreign sources.
“You realize, of course, that the story is on the ABC News website and everyone is able to read about it?” I asked.
It doesn’t matter, the censor reiterated, the gag order supersedes those reports, and no Israeli media outlet is allowed to report anything about it.
Resigned to that ruling, I regretfully notified Hartman, who was chafing at the bit to tackle the story and astutely observing that “the cat was out of the bag.”
A few minutes later, I went to the homepage of Haaretz and saw that its lead story was an extensive recap of the ABC story, with all of its details on Prisoner X.
I called the Censor’s Office back and asked the duty officer what was up with that. He explained that Haaretz was violating the gag order and steps would be taken against the publication.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, the story had disappeared, to be replaced by one focusing on the gag order against a vague story being reported in the foreign media.
Meanwhile, the Twittersphere and Facebook world was bouncing the ABC story around like the piece of dynamite that it was, with comments and repostings growing exponentially by the minute. By mid-afternoon, the Reuters bureau in Jerusalem had already posted a complete story about not only Prisoner X, but also about the censor’s efforts to stifle the story domestically.
The offline Israeli public, though, became aware of Prisoner X only after MKs Zehava Gal- On (Meretz), Dov Henin (Hadash) and Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) raised the issue during their speeches in the Knesset plenum in the middle of the afternoon by asking outgoing Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman to confirm the ABC reports.
By then, it was clear that whatever efforts the censor made to keep the story from getting “out there” were futile, and that, gag order or not, there was nothing that could be done to rein in the leaks. That’s why we received notification from the Censor’s Office around 5:30 p.m. that we could report about the MKs’ comments, but not, still, refer to details in the ABC report.
That cockeyed policy resulted in Wednesday morning’s issue of Haaretz in English including a report on the MKs’ speeches in accordance with the gag order while, ironically, the International Herald Tribune issued with the paper contained a detailed story on the ABC story.
By late in the evening, the censor had called the Post’s Editor-in- Chief Steve Linde to announce that details of the story would be allowed to be published on Wednesday, ending an Orwellian day of confusion, threats, demands and censorship.
There are certainly instances when the publication of details of sensitive, security-related issues indeed should be monitored, and if need be, censored. It’s especially relevant if the publication of such material could endanger lives of Israeli civilians or Israeli security personnel.
However, as exemplified by the Prisoner X saga, the digital communication age has changed the playing field. If a story is under wraps, it’s one thing. But once a report has surfaced online and is disseminated faster than one can press “favorite,” there’s clearly another set of rules that need to be brought into play.
The anachronistic behavior of the IDF Censor must adapt to this new reality in order for the body to regain any semblance of credibility.
The absurd situation that resulted in Israelis who prefer newspapers, radio and TV to the Internet being segregated and kept in the dark, while the rest of the country and the world was able to learn all they want about Prisoner X, has to stop.