'Censorship and democracy don't go hand in hand'

Journalists and academics discuss military censorship and the Prisoner X phenomenon.

Zygier's gravestone (photo credit: REUTERS/Brandon Malone)
Zygier's gravestone
(photo credit: REUTERS/Brandon Malone)
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.
Vaknin-Gil admitted 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 officials.
“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 calculation.
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.”