As coronavirus rises, press freedom falls under the Palestinian Authority

Last year, dozens of Palestinian websites were ordered shut down by a Palestinian court, being regarded by the PA as opposition media.

PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY President Mahmoud Abbas (photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
(photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
The Palestinian Authority remains low on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, released this week by Reporters Without Borders, at 137 out of the 180 countries or territories ranked.
It occupies the same position it did on last year’s index.
One of the major reasons for the low ranking is the internal divisions between Fatah and Hamas, which have a direct impact on journalists.
“The political rivalry between Fatah and Hamas in the Palestinian territories includes threats, heavy-handed interrogation, arrest without charge, intimidatory lawsuits and prosecutions, and bans on covering certain events,” the 2020 report for the PA says.
Jihad Harb, an expert on Palestinian media and a columnist for the Wattan news agency and other Palestinian outlets, cited a continued PA crackdown. 
“The Magistrate’s Court decision last year to shut down Palestinian news websites had a major impact” on the ranking, he told The Media Line.
Violations of media freedoms are increasingly widespread in the Gaza Strip as well, according to the report.
Harb says that despite attempts to improve the state of journalists and journalism in the Palestinian territories, violations continue.
“There was an improvement in terms of not detaining journalists as much,” he stated. “However, other forms of harassment for journalists remains, such as incitement in some Palestinian media that are close to the government against journalists who report negatively.”
Harb includes the targeting of unions, too, such as those representing doctors and teachers, whose leaders speak out against the government.
“Everyone realizes that there is an ‘electronic army’ that some government agencies use to direct these attacks,” he said, referring to social media platforms.
Last year, dozens of Palestinian websites were ordered shut down by a Palestinian court, being regarded by the PA as opposition media.
On Wednesday, two Palestinians journalists were suspended without pay from their jobs at WAFA, the official Palestinian news agency, over Facebook comments.
Rami Samara and Jaafar Sadaqa appeared before an investigatory panel for violating the state of emergency declared due to the coronavirus pandemic. They were reinstated on Thursday.
The two are known for their blistering criticism of events and policies in the Palestinian territories.
Many Palestinian journalists were vocal in rejecting the allegations against the two, which were reportedly announced by Ahmad Assaf, general supervisor of the official media and chairman of the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation (PBC).
The Media Line made several unsuccessful attempts to reach Assaf for comment.
During daily press briefings, PA government spokesman Ibrahim Melhem faced a barrage of questions from Palestinian reporters standing in solidarity with their colleagues.
Most recently, he told journalists that the investigation against the two had ended, adding that the decisions had come from unnamed high-ranking officials.
“No one will violate the journalists’ dignity,” he insisted.
Speaking to The Media Line on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution, a Palestinian reporter described the rules as “draconian measures intended to suppress freedom of expression and press freedoms in Palestine.”
The reporter, who was arrested in the past by both the PA and Israel, says that while he appreciates Melhem’s response, “it’s not comforting. Why does it have to get to this point? Why is there no inherent belief that journalists should do their job without fear of getting arrested or fired?”
Majed Al-Arouri, executive director of the National Authority for the Independence of the Judiciary in Palestine and an expert on media laws, concurs with Harb.
“The index on freedom of the press in Palestine is well below the required level,” he told The Media Line.
Arouri argues that the closure of dozens of press sites is an indicator of a very sharp decline, and no one should be surprised at the findings of the Reporters Without Borders survey.
“I think the report and the ranking of Palestine are fair, to a very large degree, because this is the reality of Palestine in recent years, where there has been a significant decline in terms of freedom of opinion and expression,” he said.
“There may be improvements in some aspects,” he continued, “but many still show real problems, and this is reflected in freedom of expression. There are still instances in which journalists are summoned, arrested and transferred to courts, and others in which they are hampered from performing their duties.”
Arouri nevertheless believes that journalists and freedom of expression in the Palestinian territories face another, more serious, challenge.
“A large part of the [Israeli] occupation’s continuing practices includes restricting the movement of journalists,” he said. “In addition, they are pursued and arrested. There are also Facebook campaigns by Israel that target active journalists.”
He adds that policies toward journalists adopted by the Palestinian security services have created a gap in the public’s trust of the executive branch.
“There is no clear government policy on the issue of freedom of opinion and expression,” he stated. “We need a strong journalist union to defend [these freedoms]. The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate has not had real elections for many years.”
Harb warns that the state of emergency could restrict the ability of the press and public to question the government.
“Certainly, there are fears of the state of emergency and its impact on freedoms of opinion and expression,” he said.
Harb adds that there are concerns that this “culture” will continue after the end of the state of emergency, and that civil society will be unable to openly criticize or question government policies.
Hasan Awwad, an expert on Palestinian media and politics, told The Media Line that by imposing the state of emergency, the PA government created new and “untouchable” avenues of direct communication with the community, and invested in building a relationship with the press to convey its messages.
From the beginning, the PA has used its security forces as the sole tool for defeating the coronavirus pandemic, he said, and statements from the president down through social media platforms that are close to the government have praised these forces, making it “unpatriotic” to question their decisions.
Awwad notes that US President Donald Trump consistently refers to “fake news” and adds that the PA is learning from the White House.
“In many ways, the press has become a tool only for what the government wants,” he said, adding: “It’s a message to the people to abide by the decisions issued by the security forces, no matter what.”
The many statements from PA President Mahmoud Abbas and other top leadership figures glorifying the security forces and a strong government grip worry many Palestinians, who say they will lead to a state of acceptance in the street.
“Will we be allowed to question the government in the future?” Harb asks. “The steps are acceptable now, and with good reason. But what about the future? We are afraid of a tomorrow.”
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