After being detained for 60 days in Gaza City, pro-Fatah Palestinian journalist Fouad Jaradeh was finally released on 13 August. Six journalists employed by pro-Hamas media outlets were released one and two days later in the West Bank, after being arrested by the Palestinian Authority intelligences services and held for several days.
“We welcome their release but deplore the fact that journalists were clearly used as bargaining chips by political rivals,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said. “We also call for the withdrawal of all charges against some of the journalists who are being prosecuted for publishing information that allegedly threatened ‘peace and the state’s internal and external security.’ We point out that journalists have no place either behind bars or being tried by court martial, the threat that Fouad Jaradeh is facing.”
Dozens of journalists and citizen-journalists have been interrogated and jailed since the start of June by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority has also targeted media outlets that support its political rivals, blocking their websites and adopting a cyber-crime law that restricts online free speech.
In its latest summary, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Centre for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) reports that the number of media freedom violations by the two Palestinian governments has risen sharply in the past two months, to the point that they have exceeded the Israeli government’s violations – a rare occurrence, the centre says.
Intimidation in Gaza...
The common feature of the journalists who have been threatened or prosecuted is that their reporting has draw attention to governmental responsibility in political or humanitarian crises.
This is the case, for example, with Fouad Jaradeh, a Gaza-based reporter for the Palestinian Authority’s official TV channel Palestine TV, who is regarded as pro-Fatah and who has been held since 8 June.
The Gaza security services said he was arrested on suspicion of working “in complicity with Ramallah” but the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate described the claim as “farcical.” Some of his recent reports had referred to Hamas’ share of the blame for the current electricity shortages in Gaza.
The journalist Amer Balousha spent 12 days in detention, from 4 to 16 July, because of articles referring to Hamas’ role in the electricity crisis that were published in the Ramallah-based daily Al Hadath, the Egyptian left-wing newspaper Al Badil and on Facebook. Vague charges were brought against him, including “misuse of technology” (a first in Gaza) but were subsequently dropped.
In another case monitored by RSF, Nasser Abou Fol, a Gaza-based reporter for the Palestine Network for Press and Media who is also regarded as pro-Fatah, was summoned for questioning on 16 July and was made to sign a document “attesting to the intelligence services and before God that I will henceforth respect the law and the authorities and will write no more anti-government posts.”
... and in the West Bank
The situation is equally worrying in the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority’s main targets are journalists regarded as sympathetic to Hamas or to left-wing parties.
The recent increase violence between Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank is helping to reinforce Hamas’ role as favourite scapegoat. For example, Al-Aqsa TV cameraman Ahmed el Khatib – whose father was a leader of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas – was arrest on 1 July and was held for ten days without any charge being brought against him.
Anything touching on cooperation between the Palestinian Authorities and the Israelis is also proving to be sensitive. Left-wing journalist Zaher el Chemali was held for 16 days by the intelligence services after being arrested on 7 June on a charge of “poisoning the political tension” in an article on the Rai al Youm website critical of President Mahmoud Abbas. It was his sixth arrest since 2010.
Filistin Al Yom TV reporter Jehad Barakat was arrested on 6 July and, after being held for three days, is now facing prosecution because he photographed and filmed Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s motorcade being searched by soldiers at an Israeli checkpoint.
Barakat confirmed to RSF that “persecution of the media has been getting worse for the past month.” He and Chemali are due to go on trial in September.
“We calls for the withdrawal of the judicial proceedings against Palestinian journalists and an end to the intimidation campaign against the media in both the Gaza Strip and West Bank,” RSF said.
“We also call for an end to website blocking and for revision of the cyber-crime law to ensure that media freedom is respected. The recent acts of intimidation and security measures just create further complications for Palestinian journalists, whose work is already subject to restriction by the Israeli authorities.”
Like Hamas, the Palestinian Authority does not like journalists drawing attention to its share of the blame for the impasse in which the Gaza Strip finds itself. In June, the Palestinian Authority ordered Internet service providers to block more than 20 news websites in the West Bank without providing any legal grounds.
Dahlan has taken advantage of favourable circumstances (including the Gulf crisis, terrorism in Egypt and the unpopularity of Hamas and Fatah) to rally support from such disparate quarters as Gaza, Egypt, Israel and the United Arab Emirates and is now seen as a threat to the Palestinian Authority.
Amad, a pro-Dahlan news website based in Cairo became one of the first sites to be blocked on 12 June although it had information ministry authorization and was regarded as “useful to public opinion,” according to its editor, Sayed Asfour, who told the MADA that “media freedom is in great danger because of the policies pursued by the government in Ramallah.”
New cyber-crime law
Amid all the tension, President Abbas’ approval of a new cyber-crime law on 11 July has increased the concerns of Palestinian journalists, who are calling for it to be amended so that it does not restrict media freedom.
The law says: “Anyone who has established a website, disseminated information on the Internet or any information technology tool, promoting ideas and programmes violating the public order and morals, [will] be sentenced to prison for a period of no less than five years.”
The journalist Zaher el Chemali fears that “this law, which the security services wanted, will make it possible to stop an army of journalists.” He reported getting a threatening phone call just minutes after posting an ironic comment about the Palestinian Authority on Facebook. “Either become reasonable on your own, or we’ll make you,” his anonymous caller said.
Hamas has not yet taken similar measures but, because of the power shortages, the Gaza Strip’s inhabitants get little of their news online.
The Palestinian Territories are ranked 135th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.