What does Prisoner X say about the state of the press in Israel?


Ben Zygier was born in Australia.  Twelve years ago, at the age of 24, he moved to Israel, changed his name to Ben Alon, and started working for Mossad, Israel’s Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations.  In February 2010, Mossad arrested him and in December 2010 he was found dead in his cell, an apparent suicide.   However, Israel did not acknowledge his existence until a little over a week ago.

The Australian Broadcast Company (ABC) claims that Zygier was arrested after meeting with the Australian Security Intelligence Organization on a trip back to Australia.  It has been suggested that he revealed information concerning top-secret Mossad operations throughout Europe.  Some sources report that Zygier may have been about to reveal secrets about the Israeli use of false passports, some of them Australian, to obtain intelligence.

Israel, however, is officially denying these claims.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that Zygier “never had any connection with the security and organizational services of Australia.” The Israeli government has not released any other statement regarding the cause Zygier’s arrest.

Zygier was held in solitary confinement in Ayalon Prison in Ramla, Israel.   After his arrest, Israel did not release his name or the reason for his arrest, leading to him being dubbed “Prisoner X”. On December 15, 2010, his body was found hung by a sheet in the prison bathroom.   He was supposed to be under constant surveillance specifically to avoid a suicide attempt.

ABC claims that the body was flown back to Melbourne later that month for burial. Sources conflict as to whether or not the Australian government and the family of the deceased were informed of the events. The details of Zygier’s detainment and death were not officially released to the public until ABC broke the story last week. The Israeli government only acknowledged the events 24-hours after Australian TV reported the story.

While the human rights violations in this case are blatant and offensive, it also says something about the state of the free press in what is supposed to be a free, democratic nation. In Israel, all journalists, regardless of national origin, must apply for a government issued Press Card and subject all their publications to military censorship.  Failing to do so can lead to revocation of work visas for foreign journalists.  With the advent of the Internet in the past few years, this doctrine has rarely been enforced. However, a government issued gag order prevented Israeli press from investigating the case of Prisoner X.

Netanyahu cites the inherently threatened nature of the state of Israel as justification for such censorship stating, “The overexposure of security and intelligence activity could harm, sometimes severely, state security.” He continues to claim that Israel is dedicated to freedom of press.

Human rights violations such as these can only be stopped if the government is held accountable, which it is impossible to do when, as Dan Yakir, chief legal counsel for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, states “A man was held in detention under heavy secrecy, and nothing was published about the reason for his arrest or the circumstances surrounding his death,” and this goes on for a period of years.   Transparency is key to accountability.   The press of Israel must work to ensure their own freedom to investigate their government and their surroundings and the Israeli government must trust its people not to use information to endanger its sovereignty.