To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Times Truckles To Israeli Censorship --- And Then Some. Gag Order On Palestinian Teen Burning Murder Has Been Lifted, The Accused Says He Is 'The Messiah,' But Still No Story

The arrests of six Jewish extremists for the burning death of Palestinian teen ager Mohammed Abu Khdeir --- in retaliation for the kidnapping murders of three Israeli teens several weeks before--- was the subject of an immediate Israeli police gag order that barred news organizations from reporting details of the case’s investigation, including the identity of the suspects. The order applied to Israeli as well as foreign media and put the New York Times back in the crosshairs of a debate on the limits of its institutional obligations to observe official Israeli censorship, a debate that continues with press restrictions on military operations in Gaza. At the time, the paper was already observing a gag order in the case of the three kidnapped Israeli teens whose deaths were blamed on the Gaza-based Palestinian militant group Hamas. 

Both of these instances of official Israeli censorship followed on the heels another Israeli government gag order case in April, in which the paper delayed reporting on the incommunicado detention of a Palestinian journalist/activist on suspicion of terrorist conspiracy as he returned from a conference in Lebanon until the man was released into house arrest before being cleared.  The April case revealed a certain amount of institutional confusion on the part of the Times. Bureau chief Jodi Rudoren told Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan that that it was paper's policy to observe such censorship and was necessary for maintaining official accreditation, while the paper’s masthead editors said the knew of no such policy.

At the time, however, Rudoren tried to calm any anxieties about the impact such an order might have on the paper’s overall coverage by minimizing the significance of the detained Palestinian journalist, telling Sullivan that it would have resulted in at most a short “brief.” In the case of a more important story with a gag order, Rudoren speculated that the paper would probably do an end run around legal restrictions in Israel by writing a story from New York or Washington.   

In fact the Times took another course in the gag order on the teen burning murder case, though one with the similar aim of preserving Rudoren’s press credentials, as well as Isabel Kershner, Rudoren's colleague in the Jerusalem bureau who is an Israeli citizen. Within a week Times editors dispatched London-based correspondent Steve Erlanger to do an end run around Israeli censors, reporting on Sunday July 10th that there were links between the killing and “Israeli right- wing extremist groups that have at times operated with impunity.” The headline on the report read: Killing of Palestinian Youth Puts an Israeli Focus on Extremism.”

Erlanger made note that the largest Hebrew language newspaper in Israel Israeli Hebrew language newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth was reporting that the ringleader was “the son of a well-known rabbi” who lived in the settlement of Adam near Jerusalem and that he was said to have psychiatric issues, but that none of the details had been confirmed. In fact though YNet, an English language website associated with Yedioth Ahronoth was reporting that the man in question was both the son and grandson of two right wing Israeli rabbis associated with resurgent Jewish fundamentalism in the militant settler community.    

The gag order in the Abu Khdeir  case was lifted July 20th. Haaretz reported that the identity of the chief suspect, 29 year old Yosef Haim Ben-David, who ran an eyeglass store in Jerusalem and bears a striking resemblance to Charles Manson in some press photographs.  As formal court proceedings unfolded in late July, the Forward ran a Jewish Telegraph Agency story reporting that Ben-David and had announced that he was “the Messiah” in Jerusalem District Court. And that he would be pursuing a temporary insanity defense. The Forward also reported that  Ben-David had been committed to a mental hospital in recent months after allegedly attempting to murder his infant daughter, and that he was also charged with attempting to kidnap a 7-year-old boy from eastern Jerusalem a day before the murder of Khdeir. Other Israeli news organizations, such as the Jerusalem Post, reported that officials had placed the gag order on the suspect’s identity in part to protect the suspect’s family from reprisals like the firebombing attack they claimed to have suffered but that was in fact fictional, according to the Israeli judge who lifted the order.   

Yet as significant as this case was to sequence of events that culminated in the now nearly month long Israeli military operation in Gaza, the Times has not followed up with news of the suspect’s identity. Nor has it reported the man’s deranged claims to be the Messiah or the full significance of his family connections to the rising tide of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel which is said to have spread quite extensively into the IDF.

Of course, keeping up with news on the Gaza operation might very well be a be a factor in the delay. But the paper was able to report in a very timely manner on the lifting of the gag order associated with the killing of the three kidnapped Israeli teens, noting that a Palestinian man who had been arrested had told interrogators that he had received financing for the operation from Hamas. And it has been almost three weeks now since the Israeli judge lifted the censorship order. So why is the news that the man responsible for the horrendous revenge murder of a Palestinian teen is a pretender Messiah with connections to the shadowy and combustible world of Jewish extremism, not fit to print here even after the official gag order barring its publication has expired over there?  

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