Share story

JERUSALEM — Israel’s military censor, which has long served as the country’s guardian of state secrets, is suddenly under the microscope after two sensitive reports broken by the international media.

An Australian broadcaster’s story this week about the suspicious death of an Australian-Israeli prisoner held by Israel and foreign reports of an Israeli airstrike in Syria last month have revealed the limits of Israel’s decades-long censorship rules and court-imposed gag orders. In today’s Internet age, many are asking whether these restrictions are relevant.

The idea behind the objections is that in today’s communications environment, when anyone can potentially be a publisher with a potentially worldwide audience, to censor “the media” is akin to censoring conversation, which Israel, as a democracy, would never conceive of doing.

“(Gag orders) are a tool that can’t deal with the media reality we live in: a globalized, hyperconnected, hyperfast world. There is no real way to control the spread of information,” said Yuval Dror, an expert in digital communications.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

The censorship office, which emerged from an agreement between editors and the government in the 1950s, has long wielded heavy control over reporting of Israel’s military and intelligence forays abroad and over domestic affairs it wants to keep under wraps.

Journalists writing about potentially sensitive news must clear their stories with the censor’s office before they can be published. It has the authority to block or even delete reports deemed threatening to national security, and violations of the rules can result in penalties, including jail time, for journalists. Israel’s security establishment also often seeks court-issued gag orders on certain cases.

For years, the system was mostly able to prevent release of sensitive secrets. But with the advent of blogs, Twitter and news websites, the censor’s office has appeared archaic.

Today, Israeli media are forced to quote “foreign sources” after international media divulge details, such as the reports of an Israeli airstrike last month on a weapons convoy in Syria.

Illustrating limitations of the censor’s office was this week’s report by Australia’s national broadcaster that an Australian-Israeli man who worked for Israel’s Mossad spy agency had hanged himself in an Israeli prison. While the report was accessible on the Internet, and Twitter and blogs were abuzz with details, the censor banned Israeli media from discussing it.

Adding to the confusion, the prime minister’s office urgently summoned editors of the nation’s major newspapers, apparently to discuss the case while ordering them not to write about it. Meanwhile, three lawmakers, who enjoy parliamentary immunity from censorship restrictions, gave speeches in Parliament urging the government to respond to the report.

Even so, newspaper headlines early Wednesday quoted the speeches but made no reference to the Australian report, still under gag order.

Later Wednesday, the censor finally permitted Israeli media to cite the Australian report, and details of the case flooded all the main radio, TV and news websites. Much of the discussion focused on the relevance of efforts to contain information.

“It’s the 21st century. You can’t prevent these things from being exposed,” said Yossi Melman, a security-affairs commentator whose article on the Australian report was removed shortly after being posted on the Walla! news site because of censorship.

Israeli officials also sought to suppress word of the detention of Arab engineer Dirar Abu Sisi, who vanished after boarding a train in Ukraine on Feb. 19, 2011, resurfacing in Israel three weeks later in detention.

In that case, an Israeli court issued a gag order on his detention. But reports quickly surfaced out of Ukraine and the Gaza Strip about his disappearance and incarceration in Israel.

Abu Sisi was ultimately accused of masterminding Hamas’ rocket program and training fighters in the Gaza Strip and was charged with a number of crimes.

In 2010, a court-ordered ban prevented local reporting of the case of Anat Kamm, a former female soldier charged with leaking more than 2,000 military documents to a newspaper. The case was reported extensively in blogs and foreign media, which Israeli media were initially forced to cite before the gag order was lifted.

The censor’s office declined to comment when asked about its relevancy in the digital age but demanded this report be submitted for review and asked for changes in some wording, engaging in a semantic debate with reporters.

In a front-page article, Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of the prestigious Haaretz daily, accused the country’s security establishment of being stuck in a long-past era.

“Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are awash with people forwarding the information, sharing links to foreign websites, expressing opinions — and utterly ignoring those who are making pathetic attempts to turn back the clock to a time before WikiLeaks, and before bloggers who don’t give two hoots about the censor,” he wrote.

The Haaretz daily reported Wednesday about the emergency meeting called by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, where he urged the editors of the major news outlets to refrain from publishing details about the “embarrassing” Australian report. Almost instantly, foreign media began publishing stories about the case online. Bloggers were deliberating the circumstances of the man’s death and a flurry of speculation filled Twitter feeds.

Late Wednesday, after a day’s uproar over the issue, Israel confirmed that an Australian prisoner had been held under a false name and that his family knew.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.