Palestinian power-holders respond to journalist crackdown

Human Rights Watch charges both Palestinian Authority and Hamas of harassing journalists in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip

Palestinians take part in a protest against a social security law in Ramallah, October 29, 2018 (photo credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)
Palestinians take part in a protest against a social security law in Ramallah, October 29, 2018
RAMALLAH - The Palestinian Authority and Hamas, ruling entities of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip respectively, are both violating the rights of Palestinian journalists according to Human Rights Watch. When reached by The Media Line, the Palestinian government spokesman and the Ministry of Information refused to comment on the HRW allegations. But the cabinet reviewed the report and vowed that “state of Palestine will investigate the findings and recommendations of the report in cooperation with all related parties and authorities.”
“The State of Palestine, the democratic state, the state of law and institution-building, and the responsible member in the international community, is committed to its obligations and is making great efforts to comply with the standards of international human rights,” said Prime Minister Dr. Rami Al-Hamdallah in a statement. "In the West Bank, journalists are allowed to come to us, speak about abuses and file a case against the violators. In Gaza, the situation is different," said Mohammed al-Laham, head of the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate Freedom Committee.
“There is absolutely no freedom-of-speech for the journalists in Gaza,” al-Laham told The Media Line. “There, doctrinal rule allows Islamic-armed groups to threaten journalists who witness constant violations of their work-rights.”
“These forces prevent journalists from reporting the violations,” al-Laham said, adding that the few journalists who managed to report in Gaza were severely punished.
A Palestinian journalist who is based in the West Bank, however, told The Media Line under condition of anonymity for reasons of personal safety, that despite the harassment Palestinian media in the West Bank face, “the situation here [in the West Bank] is not even comparable to that of Gaza-based journalists.
“In the West Bank, our situation is much better than other situations for journalists in the Middle East,” he elaborated, “What we really need here is for the PA to raise the ceiling of freedoms for us.”
The reporter charged that both the PA and Hamas judge journalists’ work on its political background and views. In the West Bank, the PA deals with critics of the government agenda by denying them the ability to ply their craft, but while in Gaza, he saw that the Islamic Jihad detained journalists, closed down its media offices and denied access to work materials.
“There is absolutely no freedom of speech in Gaza, not only for the media people, but everyone,” the reporter insisted. International and local unions claim that the Islamic movement in Gaza uses torture and intimidation to harass and stifle local media.
In Gaza, Hamas officials issued a condemnation of the Human Rights Watch report that documented widespread censorship and detention of journalists inside the Palestinian territories.
Under the tile Two Authorities, One Way, Zero Dissent, the report details a two-year study of nearly ninety cases of official interference with freedom of expression in the West Bank and Gaza.
The incidents include the June 2017 detention of Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation reporter Fouad Jarada in Gaza by Hamas’ security forces and the July 2017 imprisonment of journalist Amer Balousha under similar circumstances.
“There are hundreds of journalists in the Strip, many who work for [outlets] who publish all kinds of reports,” Hamas spokesman Hazem Qasem told The Media Line. “Nobody gets in their way and we don’t have a single journalist imprisoned.”
The HRW report rebuked Hamas for charging defendants under vague laws including the “misuse of technology” and “harming revolutionary unity.”
It also alleges Hamas uses confessions that may have been obtained by torture to prosecute reporters.
“The Islamic movement does not interfere in the journalists’ business at all because there are governmental committees to manage the media, not Hamas itself,” Qasem insisted as he offered the official rebuttal to HRW’s Gaza findings.
The report has also been denounced by the Palestinian Authority as inaccurate and "biased” with Ramallah officials particularly stunned by HRW’s call to donor countries to suspend aid to agencies implicated in abuses until the implementation of widespread reforms.
Meanwhile, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has denounced harassment and targeting of Gaza journalists including intimidation of union officials who witnessed the seizure of IFJ headquarters by Hamas’ security forces.
“Hamas has faked a committee to replace the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate and speak on our behalf,” a Gaza based reporter told The Media Line. The journalist spoke on the condition of anonymity citing ongoing security concerns.
“This “fake” committee issues regulations and arrest-warrants against journalists in Gaza and we can't boycott them because they are the only agency established to produce the legal papers we need or give us coverage permits,” said the reporter.
Journalists in the Gaza Strip face charges of engaging in illegal activities, individual travel prohibitions and confiscation of news gathering equipment if they don’t follow Hamas guidelines on coverage and political opinion.
“We can’t write about the electricity shortage, prices of consumer goods or internal security events and we can’t share our personal opinion on Facebook or Twitter without facing questioning by Hamas security forces,” said the reporter, adding that, “Hamas doesn’t want the journalists to speak out about its corruption. For instance, it allocates public land in Gaza based on membership in the Islamic movement and we can never write about that.”
Palestinian journalists praised HRW’s deep dive into the constrained environment for independent reporting and the clampdown on dissenting opinion in the territories.
Internal Palestinian rivalries are on full display in the way both Fatah and Hamas interact, engage and exploit journalists.
“There was a tit-for-tat arrest of Palestinian journalists in the summer of 2017 when Hamas authorities detained Fouad Jarada of the Palestine Broadcasting Authority for two months and then as a way to pressure Hamas for his release, Fatah authorities detained five journalists in the West Bank,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch .
Shakir said that while there are differences in the ways Hamas and Fatah deal with freedom of expression in areas under their control, the underlying abuses are similar.
“Both engage in systematic arbitrary arrests of dissidents and critics including journalists, and their mistreatment of those in detention uses similar tactics such as positional torture,” Shakir told the Media Line.