A photojournalist in a press vest [Illustrative].
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Journalists critical of Palestinian policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been imprisoned and tortured according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based NGO devoted to human rights activism. HRW released a report August 30 documenting five instances of rights abuses against journalists.
According to HRW, officials in the West Bank and Gaza have a long history of clamping down on journalists and restricting freedom of the press by arresting, torturing and bringing criminal charges against them.
“The governments in both areas arrest and try to silence those who criticize the authorities and it is having a chilling effect on free speech and public debate on important issues like health, corruption, poverty and politics,” Sari Bashi, the Israel/Palestine Director of HRW said.
Those documented in the report include two rappers and another activist accused of insulting the authorities and working with Israel, an activist who criticized the Hamas government for not helping a mentally disabled man, and a female journalist who exposed malpractice in a hospital. All were arrested and detained and four of the five were tortured. All have since been released; however, three are facing criminal charges.
“In both places, people are being jailed for raising important public issues. We think that peaceful speech shouldn’t be criminalized,” Bashi added.
This report is the most recent in a series issued by HRW, which first accused the Western-backed Palestinian Authority and the Islamist Hamas of violating free press rights in the West Bank and Gaza in 2011.
Bashi said that HRW has documented a number of cases in the past five years of activists and journalists being arrested, tortured and charged for expressing criticism of the authorities. “Last year, MADA (the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms) documented 192 cases of journalists being restricted or silenced by the authorities in the West Bank and Gaza,” Bashi said.
According to MADA, there have been 65 documented cases of human rights violations against journalists in the first half of 2016, with roughly two thirds in the West Bank and a third in the Gaza strip.
Palestinian officials deny that abuses occur.
“I think the situation is getting better (in the Gaza Strip),” Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas spokesperson told The Media Line. “We have many journalists and many websites and political activists and they write articles. There is no one who is kept in prison for expressing political opinions.”
According to Mohamad Hamayel, a correspondent for Press TV, he has friends who are consistently investigated by Hamas.
“For example, there is a radio presenter who works in Gaza and every two or three days he is called in by the Hamas security apparatus for interrogation,” Hamayel told The Media Line.
Things are no better for journalists in the West Bank. Jihad Barakat, a correspondent for Palestine Today TV, was arrested, along with his cameraman, for attempting to film a demonstration in the settlement of Beit El in 2015.
“Five civilian security agents took the camera and my cameraman was arrested by force. His T-shirt was torn. I spoke to the security personnel and told them I work for Palestine Television; they promptly took my phone and detained me for one and a half hours. They then took the memory chip out of my camera,” Barakat told The Media Line.
“These things happen a lot when a demonstration is suppressed,” Barakat added.
In 2014, Palestine ratified the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which essentially protects the right of free speech. Despite this, freedom of the press and free speech are hobbled because of outdated laws that criminalize defamation and insulting public officials.
“These outdated laws are inconsistent with the international commitments Palestine has assumed and they should be changed. Until they are changed, the authorities should stop enforcing them,” Bashi added.
Along with changing and not enforcing these laws, Bashi has recommended that all interrogations should be videotaped and that security forces should be prevented from physically abusing citizens.