Thu, Jan 27, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Israel ready to ban BBC reporter over Vanunu interview

THE GUARDIAN , JERUSALEM

Israel is poised to expel a senior BBC journalist it accuses of criminal defiance of censorship laws over an interview with the nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu.

Simon Wilson, deputy chief of the BBC's Jerusalem bureau, has been unable to return to Israel since the beginning of the year, when his work permit expired.

The government says no new visa will be issued until Wilson agrees to sign a letter acknowledging that he deliberately defied Israeli law, apologizing and promising that it will not happen again.

BBC sources say that the corporation is unwilling to agree to such a move, in which case Wilson will be barred from Israel indefinitely.

Although the dispute arose out of a BBC interview with Vanunu last year, it reflects the increasingly troubled relationship between the corporation and the Israeli government which has led Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's administration to break off cooperation at times and his ministers to refuse to appear on BBC programs.

It is highly unusual for Israel to expel journalists from established news organizations, but an official said the prime minister's office was particularly angered at the "conspiratorial" actions of the BBC's Jerusalem bureau.

Wilson was acting bureau chief when a private production company with a BBC contract interviewed the whistleblower last year on his release after 18 years in prison.

Although Vanunu is barred from talking to the foreign press, he has spoken to dozens of reporters. Israel says the issue is the failure to abide by censorship laws.

Israel says officials from the Shin Bet security service and military twice called the BBC bureau and told Wilson that they required to see the interview with Vanunu before it left the country.

Although Israel's strict censorship laws are rarely enforced, it is a criminal offence not to submit security-related material for review if requested.

The tapes were smuggled out of Israel. Israeli officials say Wilson knowingly broke the law. BBC sources say he played no role in the decision not to hand over the interview and had no knowledge of how it left the country.

Israeli officials say they confronted the corporation with evidence from Shin Bet that the tapes were copied on the BBC bureau's machines and taken to Jordan.

Wilson's work permit expired in August but was renewed until the end of the year at the behest of the Israeli embassy in London. BBC officials have told Israel that, whether or not the corporation erred, it does not accept that Wilson is responsible.

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