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What the People of the Book Can’t Read

A look at Israel’s (literally) byzantine press rules

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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 ( 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.

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Poupic says:

Of course a country that never had one day it did not have to protect itself from Arab terror must have some amount of censorship. Israel very existence could be endangered otherwise. Comparing Israel to western nations in this case is either puerile or evil. Which one is it Mr. Leibovitz?

Oh pulease. Israel is at war. For a country at war Israel has far less censorship than other countries. DIt is unfair to compare Israel to Sweden when it comes to censorship.

Indeed, in its first decades Israel was in many ways a less democratic country than it is today. In those days political scandals were less often reported and it seemed that the Labor Party would never have to put up a real fight to win an election. Nowadays, Israeli electoral politics has become an open battlefield and the Israeli press breaks stories about rape accusations against a sitting president and the financial shenanigans of prime ministers. Haaretz must surely be the most oft-quoted news source in anti-Israeli and anti-semitic blogs. Fine, so two years ago a story about a suicide in a prison was censored. Since, as the author admits, such occasional attempts at censorship are impotent in our cybernetic world, they do not constitute a genuine limit on freedom of information but are rather quaint throwbacks to an earlier age. So, dear author, do not lose too much sleep over the “troubling side” of this story.

    Oh, the rhetoric “for all of its chest-thumping and pride in being the Start-Up Nation”!
    As Gershom Scholem wrote to Hannah Arendt
    רק אין בו אהבת ישראל

disqus_kcslBKO0oH says:

small correction: israelies can read this. just because we have some people who prefer to leave us in the dark doesn’t mean the whole country is dark. SEVERAL parlament members exposed the story the very same day – as seen in the following (hebrew) article. I’m glad Israeli people aren’t afraid to stand up for what’s right. (and hope it will be needed as little as possible).
people are not sheep; please, avoid critcizing a whole nation for the faults of one of it’s leaders.

Have a good day

pkbrandon says:

Supposedly Israel’s strength lies in it’s difference from other nations; the fact that it is the only functioning democracy in the Middle East.
Without a free press you don’t have a functioning democracy.
You don’t defeat your enemy by becoming it — that is the ultimate Pyrrhic victory.

Israel is not a democracy state at all because she keeps Mossad agents’ names and actions in dark and not let the media to publish it. What a shame…. Have you no other garbage to sell here?


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What the People of the Book Can’t Read

A look at Israel’s (literally) byzantine press rules

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