Spy case 'highlights Israel media gagging'

2013-02-15 10:00
The tombstone of Ben Zygier stands at Chevra Kadisha Jewish Cemetery in Melbourne, Australia. (Andrew Brownbill, AP)

The tombstone of Ben Zygier stands at Chevra Kadisha Jewish Cemetery in Melbourne, Australia. (Andrew Brownbill, AP)

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Sydney - The reporter who broke the story of the secret arrest and suicide of "Prisoner X" said on Friday the spy case mystery had brought to a head simmering resentment at how Israel suppresses information.

Trevor Bormann's expose on Australian television sparked an extraordinary week in Israeli politics including frantic and ultimately futile efforts to keep the lid on a case that had been under a strict court gagging order since 2010.

It involved a man Bormann identified as Mossad agent Ben Zygier, an Australian-Israeli citizen who is now known to have died in December 2010 while being held in Ayalon prison in Ramle near Tel Aviv.

Israel had gone to extreme lengths to keep his case under wraps and key details including the reason for his arrest and the circumstances of his apparent suicide remain under strict restrictions.

Bormann said on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) website that Israeli intelligence services were aware the report was going to air and an urgent meeting was called with editors to reinforce the gagging order.

The Australia-based Bormann said he was informed that on the instructions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the editors-in-chief and owners of Israel's main media outlets were summoned an hour after the ABC report was aired.

Need for review

"The meeting was addressed by the head of Mossad, Tamir Pardo. Israel's chief censor was also present," he said.

"The Mossad chief passionately urged media outlets not to report details of the Foreign Correspondent programme, saying it would deeply embarrass the security services.

"He told the editors they should heed his advice in the interests of national security."

But an editor who was present told Bormann that "media representatives 'turned' on the Mossad chief".

"They complained that for too long gag orders had frustrated the healthy functioning of the press, and a review was needed to take account of changes in the media landscape.

"One editor accused the Mossad chief of 'treating the Israeli public like fools'.

Disturbing questions

The experienced Bormann said he had spoken to about 30 Israeli journalists since his story broke and they felt it had "brought to a head years of resentment at the way Israel's security services suppress sensitive information".

On Wednesday after the story went global the justice ministry finally eased restrictions, admitting for the first time jailing a foreigner on security grounds who took his life in December 2010.

It said an inquest into his death had rendered a verdict of suicide just six weeks ago, but other details remained under a gag order, leaving what commentators said was a growing list of "numerous and disturbing questions".

Shimon Shiffer, writing in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot, said Israel's attempts to suppress the story despite it making headlines across the world "portrays our decision-makers as an illiterate band of mafiosos protecting narrow interests and looking to whitewash rather than protecting the security of the state of Israel".

Senior political officials quoted by Yediot admitted Israel made a big mistake in trying to bury the story.

"There was a lot of panic here and a total lack of understanding of how the media operates in the internet age," said one.

Bormann joined the ABC in 1987 and covered the Gulf and Iraq wars for the broadcaster. He was their Middle East correspondent in the early 1990s and is also a former network editor of television news.

Read more on:    benjamin netanyahu  |  israel  |  australia  |  espionage  |  media
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