The Committee to Protect Journalists is writing to express deep concern about the case of Mordechai Vanunu, a former Israeli nuclear technician recently charged with violating government restrictions that bar him from speaking with the foreign press. These punitive measures against Vanunu threaten freedom of the press by inhibiting news coverage of an issue of vital concern.
Vanunu, a former technician at Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility, was charged last month with violating the terms of his prison release, which prevent him from leaving the country and from speaking with foreigners, including members of the media. (The domestic press is already subject to more restrictive government censorship on matters of national security.) The restrictions were imposed in accordance with Israel’s Defense (Emergency) Regulations–issued in 1945 by the British Mandatory authorities and later incorporated into Israeli law–after Vanunu finished serving an 18-year sentence last April for treason and espionage. The charges stemmed from information about Israel’s atomic program that Vanunu revealed to the Sunday Times of London in 1986, leading experts to conclude that Israel possessed 100 to 200 nuclear weapons.
In July 2004, Israel’s High Court of Justice turned down an appeal by Vanunu to drop the restrictions, ruling that he posed a security risk.
According to the government’s new indictment, Vanunu is charged with violating the terms of his release on 21 occasions. Seventeen of those violations involved instances in which he spoke to foreign reporters about his work at Dimona. Vanunu faces two years in prison if convicted of the charges, according to Reuters news agency, citing the Justice Ministry. His trial is set to begin on April 6.
Israeli officials have maintained that the restrictions imposed on Vanunu are necessary to prevent harm to national security and have accused Vanunu of passing on sensitive information about Dimona in his recent interviews with the foreign press. Vanunu and his supporters, however, maintain that the former technician revealed everything he knew about Dimona in 1986, and that he does not possess any information that could jeopardize national security since he has not worked at the facility for two decades.
While CPJ appreciates Israel’s concerns about national security, we find the restrictions barring Vanunu from speaking with the press unreasonable. We believe Israeli authorities are using archaic regulations to stifle media coverage of an important story that is potentially embarrassing to the government. For the press to function freely, journalists must be able to report on sensitive topics–including those that officials may find objectionable–and to promote an open debate on issues of critical importance.
We urge you to drop the charges against Vanunu and lift the restrictions barring him from speaking with the media. We further urge you to take the necessary steps to revise or eliminate these and other regulations under Israeli law that allow for censorship and prevent the press from working freely.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter. We look forward to your reply.