Long before Prisoner X: A British Censor’s Order in Mandate Palestine


(From Palestine Post29th August, 1938, 1)

If you take a selection of newspapers from the Mandate Palestine press published after the tail-end of August in 1938, you will notice something that they all have in common.

 Aside from the things that we all already know that newspapers have in common – headlines, columns, ads, news (etc), is this: All reports related to British military or police maneuvers, or the activities of Arab rebels (this was two years into the 1936-39 Arab revolt) state that they are based on “official reports” or taken from an official “bulletin from the Public Information Officer.” See for example paragraph three in this article from the Palestine Post on 9th November, 1938:


So what was this bulletin? And did it exist from the beginning of the British Mandate in 1920?

The short answer to the second question is no. British diplomatic correspondence from 1938 reveals that on 26th August, 1938, the Mandate Authority issued a Censor’s Order requiring the local press to base itself on an official bulletin when reporting the issues mentioned above.**


In answer to the first question (what was this bulletin?), here is an extract from the High Commissioner for Palestine Harold MacMichael’s secret dispatch to London, dated 13th September. In it, he explains the Censor’s Order, and what was behind it:

“The reaction and tone of the Arab, Jewish and English (Palestine Post) press on public security in this country has been a matter of preoccupation to myself and the General Officer Commanding, particularly during the last three months.

The Arab press yielding partly to the pressure of terrorist threats and actuated partly by their own sympathies, persisted in giving gratuitous and exaggerated publicity to any success achieved by the bandits. Such publicity not only encouraged lawlessness and violence, but also tended seriously to undermine Arab morale in the Government service and thus render even more difficult the re-establishment of security in the country.

The influence of the Hebrew press, including the ‘Palestine Post’, was no less dangerous. Editors allowed their journalistic zeal to leave no incident unpublished regardless of the fact whether or not such publication was, from a Jewish standpoint, politically advisable or even warranted. Indeed it is said that the bandits, in their desire to obtain the fullest publicity for their exploits, ensured that all reporters of those exploits were, by pre-arranged scheme, conveyed hot-haste to the cafes of Jaffa, Haifa and Jerusalem where they were at once collected by enthusiastic Jewish reporters with the result that – paradoxical though it sounds – the Jewish press became the unwitting publicists of the enemy. 

For a time the Public Information Officer appealed to editors, and official warnings and suspensions ordered under the Press Ordinance,* on the one hand to induce a more circumspect attitude in the Arab press, and on the other to convince Hebrew editors of the folly of their ways; but eventually it was apparent that neither was prepared or sensible enough to curb their activities, and accordingly on the 26th August, after consultation with the General Officer Commanding, I caused a Censor’s Order to be issued under Defence Regulation 11(3) prohibiting to all the local press any comment on local military or police operations or on the activities of the rebels, and secondly, any reference to such operations and activities other than in the terms of such official communications as would be made to them by the Press Bureau. I enclose for your information a copy of the notice in question.

Simultaneously I instructed the Public Information Officer to organise an augmented news service from military and police sources which should be made officially available to the Press and Broadcasting service. This had been done; and although on the pretext that their journalistic independence and privilege had been threatened, the Hebrew editors in particular have expressed their strong disapproval of the system, the newspapers as they are now published are no longer the same menace to public security. This censor’s order will be maintained until further notice.“


(Another example: “Disturbances from recent days –  official notices from Tuesday afternoon,” from Davar2nd November, 1938, 1)

A look at Palestine Post and Davar from the date of the order shows that reports based on this official bulletin continued appearing through 1938, and into 1939. It is not clear, however, whether this was still under the Censor’s Order above, and I have not (yet!) been able to find the date that the order was lifted.


(Another example from Al-Difa’, 11th November, 1938, 4: “Gunshots on Jewish officer; announcement of curfew in Jaffa in the daytime for a period of seven hours; demolition of two houses in the city of Nablus after throwing of bombs on an army base; strike in Tulqarem; from the official report which the Public Security Department publishes.”)

Coming up in a separate post: Was the Censor’s Order immediately upheld by the local press? What did the British High Commissioner report to London in his next secret dispatch?

(and just in case you wanted some more information…)

*The British Mandate Press Ordinance was issued in 1933. British norms regulating licensing, closure of publications, and approval of journalist credentials are still maintained in Israel today.

**Of course, there there was censorship of the press before the 26th August order. Without going into too much detail, the British issued Censor’s Orders to deal with specific issues, as well as asking to see material before publication in the local press. Newspapers that did not comply with orders of the censor faced suspension for varying periods of time (for examples, see this British report to the League of Nations in 1937). In addition, exclusion orders were placed on publications from outside Mandate Palestine; telegrams of foreign correspondents were sometimes censored; and there were limits put on who could make international trunk phone calls, in order to control what news was leaving the country.

(Images from Palestine Post  and Davar taken from Historical Jewish Press archive. Image of Al-Difa’ photographed by me at National Library of Israel. Image of the British dispatch taken by me at Moshe Dayan Center library.)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Long before Prisoner X: A British Censor’s Order in Mandate Palestine

  1. Pingback: Israel’s policy of demolishing homes and its roots in the British Mandate | The Paper Dispatch

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s