Muzzling press freedom in Occupied Palestine

21/08/2008

By Khalid Amayreh in the Occupied Palestinian
territories

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 al-Jazeera.net 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 the 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.

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