Muzzling Press Freedom in Occupied Palestine

To begin with, I would like to point out that I am writing this article at the risk of being arrested for “incitement” and “tarnishing” the Palestinian Authority (PA) image. However, the cause of press freedom in Occupied Palestine is too paramount to be compromised by fears for one’s safety. Hence, journalists and free-minded citizens must not allow themselves to be intimidated by a police-state apparatus that views itself as God’s vicegerent on earth.

In recent weeks and months, the American-backed and Israeli-favored regime in Ramallah has been systematically violating the human rights and civil liberties of the Palestinian people in ways unseen since the start of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967. This is done in utter violation of the rule of law and is mainly aimed at consolidating Fatah’s domination in the region. In short, it seems that the PA, not Hamas, is enforcing a ruthless regime whereby all forms of dissent are suppressed by brute force.

To be sure, not only press freedom is suffering under the fear-inspiring regime being imposed on the Palestinian masses in the West Bank, thanks to American, Israeli and European bullying. The PA has been arresting people and closing down or taking over academic, health and charitable institutions ever since Hamas’s counter-coup in Gaza more than 14 months ago. However, press freedom always serves as an accurate barometer reflecting the status of human rights and civil liberties in any given country.

Today press freedom in the West Bank is coming under attack by the PA. In recent weeks, Palestinian security agencies stepped up efforts to muzzle press freedom and intimidate non-conformist journalists who criticize the PA or voice views deemed antithetical to PA policies and political goals. Many journalists, especially cameramen, have been beaten and injured at the hands of security men and no real measures are taken to prevent the recurrence of this worrying phenomenon. PA leaders readily make statements denouncing assaults on journalists. However, these assaults continue unabated, even assuming added ferocity, which suggests that the PA leadership is either losing control over the security agencies or that it is not really sincere about protecting journalists from the truncheons of PA policemen.

Two weeks ago, the PA Preventive Security Force (PSF) arrested Awadh Rajoub from his office in the town of Dura in the Hebron region. Rajoub works for the Arabic service of and writes irregular reports for a number of Arabic publications based in the occupied territories and abroad. According to his relatives, Rajoub has been accused of spreading “incitement against the Palestinian Authority” and of “endangering national unity,” a tacit reference to criticisms of the Ramallah-based regime, especially its clampdown on civil society.

Rajoub, 30, has been harshly interrogated in connection with his work and threatened to be tried by a military court. The PA is not a state, it is not even a semi state or state-in-the-making since it has no authority or sovereignty of its own. Indeed, should this kind of treatment by the PA of its own citizens be a harbinger for the future, I am sure the Palestinians, or most of them, would want to remain under Israel’s nefarious occupation until the prospect for real freedom and true liberation is in sight.

Mustafa Sabri, a journalist from the northern West Bank town of Qalqilya, has also been languishing in PA custody for several weeks in connection with his writings, deemed “not inline with” with “national interest”. Sabri, too, is accused of writing “tendentious material” that could undermine Palestinian regime’s public image. However, it is widely believed that his political orientation is the real reason behind his arrest and continued incarceration. Last week, Sabri was transferred to the custody of the “military intelligence” where concocted charges were leveled against him, including “assaulting a police officer.” His lawyer told this writer that “there is no legal basis for keeping my client behind bars; his arrest is in violation of all Palestinian laws.”

Undoubtedly, the arrest of journalists constitutes a flagrant breach of press freedom and a clear violation of Palestinian press laws. The Palestinian press law states that “no security agency has the right to question, interrogate or detain a Palestinian journalist on matters pertaining to his or her work.” Hence, it is clear that the PA is violating its own laws with regard to press freedom.

The PA might think that arresting and harassing journalists would force them to exercise “self-censorship.” This might be partially true, especially with young journalists struggling to build a professional career from scratch. However, in the long run, this stupid policy is self-defeating since hiding the truth from citizens and the world at large is an impossible task in the age of the internet. Hence, it is only fragile and insecure regimes that adopt a hostile attitude to press freedom. More to the point, the PA security agencies have lately begun to interfere with the editorial policies of some local news agencies for the purpose of making sure they don’t deviate from “the official line.” Unfortunately, some of these news agencies have effectively succumbed to this intimidation.

A few days ago, this writer sought in vain to post an Arabic article on the webpage of a European-funded news agency. The article highlighted the plight of thousands of Palestinian school teachers who haven’t received regular salaries for close to two years because of doubts about their loyalty to the PA regime. Some of these teachers, who teach “nationalist education” in morning classes, are forced to work in Jewish settlements in the West Bank in the afternoon in order to make ends meet. Unfortunately, the editor-in-chief of that news agency, bruited abroad as a free and independent news outlet, refused to post the article without any explanation.

Meanwhile, PA security agencies are trying even to suppress people’s thoughts and ideas. This week, Palestinian security officials summoned for questioning a former journalist from the southern part of the West Bank in connection with an internet article written by a distant relative. The man told the interrogating “officer” that he had nothing to do with the article and that he had stopped writing a long time ago. However, the condescending officer told the man that he realized that he didn’t write the article himself, and that he only suspected that the ideas contained in the article were inline with his way of thinking!!!

There are those who would cite press freedom violations by the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip to justify or at least extenuate the gravity of what is happening in the West Bank. However, it is amply clear that whatever is happening in Gaza can’t be compared in terms of proportionality and gravity to what is happening in the West Bank. As an independent-minded and free-thinking journalist who has withstood and continues to withstand Israeli repression and harassment, I unhesitatingly denounce in the strongest terms all violations of press freedom, regardless of the political identity and ideological affiliation of the victim and the perpetrator. Earlier this week, I contacted my friend Saleh al Naami, a journalist of impeccable credentials, and asked him if Fatah-affiliated journalists were being detained by the Gaza Authorities. Al-Naami said the following:

I don’t know of any journalist being arrested in Gaza. A journalist working for a German Television network was detained recently for a few days in connection with the violence that struck the Gaza beach in June, but he has been released.

In any case, both the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the Hamas government in Gaza are strongly urged to immediately put an end to all forms of press freedom violations. This is the right thing to do, and Palestine is too tired and too exhausted to be dragged into another internal strife which could only debilitate and exhaust us further.

Khalid Amayreh is a journalist living in Palestine. Read other articles by Khaled, or visit Khaled's website.