* Australian man's death in Israel tests censorship limits
* Military censorship faces new challenge in Internet age
* Security-related issues subject to censor's review
By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM, Feb 13 The mysterious death of an
Australian prisoner in Israel has put the spotlight on a
military-run censorship system that is finding it harder to
black out secret information often only a mouse click away on
The case involves a man reported by Australia's ABC channel
on Tuesday to have been a member of Israel's Mossad spy agency.
According to the report, he committed suicide in prison in 2010
in an isolated top-security wing originally built for the
assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Why the man, identified by ABC as Ben Zygier, an immigrant
to Israel, was jailed is still a closely guarded secret, and
reports dealing with matters of state security must be submitted
to military censors for vetting.
In a highly unusual move within hours of the ABC broadcast,
Israeli editors were summoned to an emergency meeting in Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office and asked not to publish a
story "that is very embarrassing to a certain government
agency", Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported.
Israeli news outlets that had carried the report scrambled
to remove it from their websites, but that only drew attention
to the case. Chatter ran rampant on Twitter and Facebook,
offering polyglot Israelis links to foreign news sites.
For decades, journalists in Israel have been required to
sign an undertaking to abide by military censorship rules when
they apply for accreditation from the government press office.
Reporters risk being denied press cards and, in the case of
foreigners, work visas if they violate the regulations.
"You either work with us, or you work abroad," a military
censor, cautioning against reporting where Palestinian rockets
were landing in Israel, warned a Reuters correspondent during an
eight-day Gaza war in November.
In the age of the Internet, efforts by Israel to put the
genie back in the bottle proved fruitless.
"People in the state, in the Shin Bet (internal security
agency) and the courts conduct themselves as if we were still in
the stone age," said Avigdor Feldman, an Israeli attorney whose
clients have included nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu.
Vanunu, a former technician in Israel's top secret Dimona
nuclear reactor told Britain's Sunday Times newspaper in 1986
that atomic bombs were produced at the facility. He was jailed
as a traitor and served 18 years in prison.
"These things are ultimately revealed. People talk, and not
just on the Internet. The tight-lip that once typified this
country is no longer ... all the gag orders just shame the
courts and the country," he told Reuters.
Aluf Benn, editor of Israel's liberal Haaretz newspaper,
said Israeli security authorities and judges who issue gag
orders at their request find it hard to come to terms with the
concept of a free media operating in a democracy.
"For (Mossad chief Tamir) Pardo and his ilk, the Israeli
media are a branch of the state ... that is why we are forced
absurdly to quote foreign news sources about military
operations, intelligence snafus and clandestine trials," Benn
wrote in a commentary in his newspaper.
"Generation after generation, the military censor has
explained to reporters that anything published by an Israeli
outlet is seen by the international community as an official
statement, whereas reports by foreign news sources are not."
So when controversial incidents take place, such as an
attack on Syria last month that the Damascus government said was
carried out by the Israeli air force, Israeli media are banned
from publishing their own information.
And while Israel's nuclear arms have been an open secret for
decades, reference to the arsenal has always been attributed in
the local press to "foreign reports".
Curiously, the case of "Prisoner X" was deemed so sensitive
that for almost 24 hours the authorities tried to prevent any
word seeping out into the local media.
They finally raised the white flag after left-wing and Arab
legislators used their parliamentary immunity to demand
explanations about the affair on the floor of the Knesset,
enabling Israeli papers to at least allude to the story.
On Tuesday the gag orders were eased to allow the media to
carry foreign reports of the case, but the censors told
journalists not to identify the dead man's wife and two children
- information that is readily available on the Internet.
Gad Shimron, a former Mossad officer who writes on
intelligence matters, told Reuters he had no knowledge about
Zygier, "but in the 21st century, in the age of Facebook and
Twitter, I simply don't believe such secrecy can be maintained".
(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Dan Williams and
Crispian Balmer; Editing by Alison Williams)