Journalist threatened over reporting on spy chief and ICC, Israeli newspaper says

Israel’s leading leftwing newspaper, Haaretz, has said unnamed senior security officials threatened one of its investigative reporters if he reported on attempts by the former head of the Mossad to intimidate the ex-prosecutor of the international criminal court.

Amid growing concern over Israel’s censorship regime, enforced by the military censor’s office and by gag orders issued by the courts, Haaretz published an article on Wednesday with blacked out words and sentences to demonstrate the scale of redactions.

In an article published on Thursday, investigative reporter Gur Megiddo described how two years ago security officials blocked an attempt by the paper to report efforts by the former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen to threaten the then ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. Details of the operation to influence Bensouda were revealed this week by the Guardian and Israeli media partners +972 magazine and Local Call.

Megiddo described how he had been summoned to meet two officials and threatened with serious consequences after they became aware that he had tried to telephone Bensouda to discuss Cohen’s efforts to influence her.

Megiddo had been investigating what the Mossad chief had been doing during three trips he made to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in which he reportedly enlisted the help of the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, to assist with efforts to pressure Bensouda.

“At the beginning of 2022, I attempted to contact the former prosecutor through a third party who knew her,” Megiddo wrote. “Bensouda never responded to the approach, but days after the attempt, when I wanted to publish the story, my phone rang and on the other end of the line was the voice of a senior security official. ‘Can you come to see me tomorrow?’ he asked.”

“At the entrance to the senior official’s office, I was asked to deposit my mobile phone to prevent me from recording the conversation. In the room, another senior official from a different security agency was waiting for me. The conversation began with the words, ‘We understand you know about the prosecutor.’”

It was “explained that if I published the story,” wrote Megiddo, “I would suffer the consequences and get to know the interrogation rooms of the Israeli security authorities from the inside.

“In the end, it was made clear to me that even sharing the information ‘with my friends abroad’, referring to foreign media outlets, would lead to the same results.”

Megiddo’s account corroborates key details of the allegations made public this week: that Cohen was tasked with attempting to intimidate and threaten Bensouda and that Cohen received support from Kabila. Cohen and Kabila have not responded to the Guardian’s requests for comment.

“I took the threats very seriously,” Megiddo told the Guardian on Thursday. “Sometimes officials can be quite heavy handed but as a rule there have been no consequences if you bypass these requests.

“In this case it was made clear they would enforce real penalties. It was highly unusual.”

Separately, Haaretz published an article subject to a court gag order, with large sections of the text blacked out, relating to the detention without trial of Bassem Tamimi, a well-known Palestinian activist in the West Bank.

Concern about press freedoms in Israel has been growing in recent weeks. On 5 May authorities shut down the local offices of Al Jazeera, hours after a government vote to use new laws to close the satellite news network’s operations in the country. Last week, equipment belonging to the Associated Press was briefly seized, prompting an intervention from the White House.

Anat Saragusti, press freedom director for the Union of Journalists in Israel, told Canada’s CBC News this week: “The extreme rightwing government of Israel, from the beginning of its term … put the freedom of [the] press as a target.”

Under Israeli law, journalists working in Israel or for an Israeli publication are required to submit articles dealing with “security issues” to the military censor for review prior to publication, in line with “emergency regulations” enacted after Israel’s founding that have remained in place ever since. The regulations allow the censor to fully or partially redact articles submitted to it.

According to figures acquired under a freedom of information request submitted by +972 magazine and the Movement for Freedom of Information in Israel, in 2023 the military censor barred the publication of 613 articles – a record amount for the period since +972 began collecting data in 2011.

The censor also redacted parts of a further 2,703 articles, representing the highest figure since 2014. In all, the military prevented information from being made public an average of nine times a day.

Haggai Matar, executive director of +972, said: “What we’ve seen, even before October 7 and the Gaza war began, is that this is an Israeli government that is hostile to journalism.

“The background is that we have a prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] who is indicted under several accusations, a number of which are about controlling the media [he denies wrongdoing in all the cases against him]. We have a minister of communications [Shlomo Karhi] who sees it as his role to fight the free press, and politicians trying to pass bills restricting the media encourage.

“Their main concern is to influence what the Israeli public sees.”

The Guardian