Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat – The security apparatus in the West Bank goes after any journalist suspected of belonging to Hamas or suspected of being close to it or working for its media. The security apparatus seems to be friendlier with other journalists.
The difference between the Hamas authority in the Gaza Strip and Fatah in the West Bank is that the former grants freedom to Hamas journalists and has engaged itself in many battles with the media, even international media, there. As for the latter, it has tried to avoid an open battle with most of the media and targets the media of Hamas.
In any case, all journalists have become one of many targets of the internal conflict. Media expert Khalil Shahin told Asharq Al-Awsat, “The attempt to use the media as a tool of instigation and defamation between the two sides of the conflict, Hamas and Fatah, was one of the reasons that freedom of the press has been subjected to serious violations in the Palestinian Territories.”
The Independent Commission for Human Rights explained that these formed an unprecedented violation of the freedom of media work in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and is reflective of the depth of the internal political division and its dangerous consequences on all fundamental rights and freedoms.
The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) pinpointed 257 violations of press freedom in the Palestinian Territories in 2008; 147 committed by the Israeli occupation forces and settlers, and 110 were committed by Palestinian security apparatus and armed Palestinian groups in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Shahin stated that journalists are subjected to arrest and being pursued in an illegal manner, some newspapers are prevented from being published and distributed, press institutions are fired upon, and lawsuits are filed and rulings are issued against journalists on the pretext of defamation and instigation.
Electronic news sites were blocked on the orders of the Attorney General of the Palestinian Authority and he banned rallies and public gatherings from taking place and prevented journalists from covering them and covering other internal events. In addition, the Arab media was accused of not being neutral and the licenses of other media institutions were revoked and many [of their offices] were raided.
Hamas states that the PA attacked public freedoms in the West Bank. Recently, the Ministry of Information of the Hamas government issued a statement saying that it condemned “the dangerous practices that journalists are being subjected to at the hands of Abbas’ militia,” accusing the PA of making “the issue of arresting journalists and being aggressive towards them and taking them to court a systematic policy.”
The Ministry statement said that the PA has detained 11 journalists including Mohammed Ishtawi, the director of the [Siraj] Al Aqsa satellite television channel affiliated to Hamas. The Ministry also believes that the difficult situation that journalists in the West Bank are facing is not getting any easier, and believes there is now a good opportunity for local and international organizations concerned with media issues to prove the extent to which they are genuine and serious about working for freedom of the press and protecting the rights of journalists and media figures and to prove their objectivity towards all Palestinian parties.
Hasan Abu Hashish, who heads the Hamas government’s media bureau in Gaza told Asharq Al-Awsat, “You write about press freedoms in Gaza…I do not have one single journalist under arrest, but there are 11 arrested in the West Bank, so write about the West Bank where you won’t find any freedom or press.”
The head of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Muna Mansour (Hamas), said that the fierce attack on freedoms in the West Bank is targeting the media, the mouthpiece for the reality on the ground.
Journalists in the West Bank believe that the security apparatus is targeting anybody affiliated to Hamas. Jihad al Quwasimi, a reporter for the local Al Quds newspaper and the Qatari Al Sharq newspaper admitted that the internal conflict between Hamas and Fatah has cost some journalists, affiliated to either side, a great deal. Jihad, a spokesperson for Fatah in Hebron, told Asharq Al-Awsat “Personally, I have not been questioned about any of my work as a journalist but some have paid a heavy price.”
The Palestinian Authority denies that it has detained any journalists as a result of their work. Brigadier Adnan al Dhamiri, the police commissioner in the West Bank told Asharq Al-Awsat “We do not arrest people because of their profession but because we suspect [them of] security issues.”
Awad al Rajoub, a reporter for Al Jazeera Net, which has been attacked in the West Bank, told Asharq Al-Awsat that he was arrested once and summoned [to court] another time because of his press reports and his communication with Hamas officials. His arrest was a “red line” for him. He said, “After having been arrested, I no longer write like I used to…The political and social situation might be resolved but this is not possible with regards to the security issues; it is a red line.” He added, “The ceiling of freedoms in the West Bank is not very high.” Al Rajoub agrees that his “own life story” might have been the main reason for his arrest and he said, “If I were a member of Fatah for example, the situation would have been different and I would have been backed.”
There is no doubt that the security apparatus is now unrestrained to the degree that, according to Khalil Shahin, it is allowed to “interfere” in targeting journalists as a result of one’s political viewpoint. Shahin said, “This has led to the spread of a culture of fear amongst those working in the media, in light of the weakness of protection available to them and the absence of a role for the Journalists’ Syndicate.”
Shahin added, “The negative results of this state (of fear) can be seen in keeping away from dealing with what can be described as contributing to weakening the Palestinian Authority in its internal conflict with the Hamas movement.”
Shahin, who also works as an editor at the local Al Ayyam newspaper, explained that “there is a disregard for publishing news about the arrest of journalists in most cases, or publishing news and reports and investigations about the phenomena of corruption in public institutions, and sometimes in the private sector. These are issues that official and economic levels have put pressure [on journalists] not to engage with, and journalists have also been subject to threats and terrorism for their attempts to shed light on some issues of corruption and official collusion in covering this up.”
On the evening of Eid al Adha, MADA condemned the arrests of journalists, and requested that this is stopped and that all journalists are released, as it considers this practice a blatant violation of the freedom of expression.
In a statement, MADA said, “Human history has proven that oppression of freedoms, and freedom of the press in particular, only caused more disasters to nations. The Palestinian nation, which has suffered different kinds of oppression over the past few decades, deserves to enjoy all freedoms granted by the Palestinian Basic Law and publishing law.”
It added, “It is sad for us to see that many journalists are being honored and being given international and regional awards whilst at the same time many of them are being pursued and arrested by Palestinian security apparatus in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”
The PA in Ramallah has banned the distribution of the Felesteen [Palestine] and Al Risala newspapers, which are both affiliated to Hamas, and has banned working for any media institution affiliated to the movement and this applies primarily to the [Siraj] Al Aqsa satellite channel.
Reporters from the [Siraj] Al Aqsa channel and others have been arrested a number of times and the court rulings for some of them to be released have not been implemented.
During a meeting with Brigadier Adnan al Dhamiri in Nablus, journalists asked him about one of their colleagues and he answered, “He has been arrested on charges of transporting weapons, not because of his journalistic work.” Security apparatus in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip arrested 60 journalists last year, half of whom were arrested in the West Bank.
The Independent Human Rights Commission confirmed that the arrests of journalists lack the security of legal procedures, as well as guarantees to a fair trial. The PA even took measures against Arab media, as four months ago the government shut down the Al Jazeera channel in protest of it broadcasting the accusations cast by Fatah’s leading figure Farouq al Qaddoumi against President Mahmoud Abbas “of being involved in an Israeli conspiracy to assassinate the late Yasser Arafat during the siege.” But the closure did not last long, as the government yielded to calls and pressures from rights’ groups and journalists who rejected the decision. Government officials came out to reject the decision to close [the station] and so did the Fatah movement.
However, it cannot be said that journalists always fear political parties, as journalists subject themselves to censorship sometimes for other reasons. Yahya Nafi, a journalist who works for Watan TV and Radio Ajyal, said, “We can criticize the President, but we cannot write about the major issue of corruption…we could be killed [for that].”
In this regard, Khalil Shahin stated, “Even though journalists can criticize the PA and its political officials, they neglect the issues of investigating various matters.” He returns to the matter of what he calls “self-censorship,” adding, “This censorship is consolidated by the existence of the occupation, and the internal political conflict, employers in the media institutions and those with large commercial interests, some ideas and traditions of conservative society, centers of power on the street, and conservative powers, and the PA and its apparatus,” all of which encourage the lack of a solid and rich culture that believes in the importance of freedom.