What the People of the Book Can’t Read
A look at Israel’s (literally) byzantine press rules
All over the world, newspapers today are reporting about Prisoner X, an alleged Mossad agent gone rogue, who had hung himself in 2010 in a maximum security Israeli prison.
Israelis, however, woke up to the news that there’s news their newspapers can’t report. Here’s what Ha’aretz (http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/prime-minister-s-office-calls-emergency-meeting-with-heads-of-israeli-media-outlets.premium-1.503095) had to say, in a brief piece written by its editor in chief, Aluf Benn:
“The Prime Minister’s Office called on Tuesday an emergency meeting of the Israeli Editors Committee, an informal forum comprised of the editors and owners of major Israeli media outlets, to ask its members to cooperate with the government and withhold publication of information pertaining to an incident that is very embarrassing to a certain government agency.”
While there’s very little we know about the affair, the Israeli government’s censorship decree reveals two troubling truths.
The first has to do with the strict limitations still placed on Israel’s press. In 1933, in an attempt to control the rowdy Jewish and Arab newspapers in Palestine, the British Mandate authorities issued a set of directives aimed to curb the local media’s independence. Most punishing among them was the requirement to obtain a license from the authorities prior to establishing a new newspaper, but other ordinances were equally as limiting—the directives, for example, give the Mandate’s High Commissioner the right to stop the publication of any newspaper on any grounds and without warning. With the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, the same directives were kept in place, with the High Commissioner’s authority now transferred to Israel’s Minister of the Interior. Throughout the years, successive Israeli governments have used the powers awarded them by the directives to stop the publication, including, most notably, the repeated closing, in the 1950s, of the Israeli Communist Party’s official paper. Despite repeated attempts to strike these directives off the law books, they remain the law of the land.
In addition to the directives, and to a robust office of military censorship, the editors of Israel’s newspapers banded together as early as 1942 to form the Editors Committee, an ersatz regulatory body that, more often than not, bowed down to the government’s requests and voluntarily refrained from publishing embarrassing stories. Before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, for example, numerous Israeli newspaper editors had concrete information about Egyptian and Syrian military maneuvers, but suppressed the story to avoid conflict with the government and the army, both of which were largely certain than an Arab attack was unlikely.
With a culture of self-suppression still strong among Israeli journalists, and with decidedly anti-democratic measures, unheard of in western democracies, still firmly in place, Israel’s press is far less free than it ought to be. The case of Prisoner X, as the Australian citizen is being called in the international media, proves that point all too well.
There is, however, one more troubling side to this story: for all of its chest-thumping and pride in being the Start-Up Nation, Israel is showing a shocking ignorance of just how modern technology works. As soon as they caught whiff of the suppressed story, Israelis simply whipped out their cell phones, did some basic googling, and then shared everything that they’ve learnt on Facebook and on Twitter. Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg et al are not members of the Editors Committee; the Start-Up Nation should finally realize that.