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Palestinian journalists say freedom of speech in danger

Dozens of Palestinian journalists protest recent arrest of colleague, other similar detentions, as tensions regarding journalistic freedom of speech escalate

The Media Line
Published: 11.20.13, 16:25 / Israel News

Issues of press freedoms under the Palestinian Authority continued as dozens of journalists organized a demonstration outside of Prime Minister Rami Al-Hamdallah’s office, protesting the recent detention of a colleague and calling for an investigation into similar arrests.

 

The day before the protest, Sami Al-Sa’i, a Tulkarem-based reporter for the local Wattan news agency, was called in by Palestinian intelligence officers for an interrogation.

 

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“I was detained for 12 hours during which I was interrogated three times,” Al-Sa’i told The Media Line.

 

His arrest, he explained, stemmed from his news coverage of the last security campaign in the northern West Bank town of Jenin and his Facebook posts critical of the negotiating teams. He added that an interrogator told him that the prosecutor could file a slander indictment that could result in a six-month jail term.

 

“The interrogator had pictures of my Facebook statuses and my articles, and I was asked what my position was from the Palestinian Authority,” he said.

 

Al-Sa’i thinks the security forces wanted to frighten journalists so they won’t portray them negatively. He was released after midnight without indictment because, he believes, of pressure from other journalists.

 

“(The officers) told me I could leave after I signed a paper promising that I won‎’t write against the PA and its officials,” he said, adding that he has signed this paper 11 times before.

 

Adnan Damiri, the spokesperson for the Palestinian security services, denied that arrests are made based on political opinions.

 

“The security forces are entitled by law to detain any citizen for 24-hours for an investigation,” Damiri added.

 

Recently, 82 journalists asked the leadership of the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate (PJS), which serves as a union for reporters, to resign after they said it has failed to protect reporters from arrest. More than 1,000 journalists from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are members of the organization.

 

The decision followed the arrest of a Palestinian broadcaster in Bethlehem after a police officer filed a complaint accusing him of slander. On his Radio Bethlehem 2000 program, George Qanawati compared the latest honoring ceremonies to cleaning shoes. In response, the head of the Bethlehem police department, Khaled Shalabi, filed a complaint against the broadcaster, accusing him of slander.

 

“I received the summons as I was covering an event in Ramallah and was told by the police that I can show up anytime in the next day. However, they came to my house as soon as I arrived home to Bethlehem,” Qanawati told The Media Line.

 

Qanawati was released 24 hours after being taken into custody, following a campaign on his behalf by the journalists’ syndicate. The broadcaster said he was beaten during the arrest and plans to file a complaint.

 

“The irony is that the prosecutor didn’t hear the recording for which they accused me of slander. I was detained just based on the complaint itself,” he added.

 

The arrest seems to violate an understanding that was reached by the general prosecution and the journalists’ syndicate, which stated that any detention should be discussed with PJS first.

 

Damiri said that there is no law that requires the security forces to give journalists immunity.

 

Mousa Al-Shaer, who is responsible for freedom of expression at PJS told The Media Line that, “I can't say that there is a policy to tighten up on the journalists, but there are violations that lead up to this situation. We are against detaining any journalist -- even if they go beyond professional journalism. The understanding is not immunity by any means, because the journalist must follow the laws like any other citizen. But these understandings mean respect for the role of media and protection for the freedom of speech.”

 

Despite recent incidents, the overall state of freedom of expression in the Palestinian territories is better than it has been in previous years, according to MADA, the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms. But news correspondents might differ.

 

The year 2013 has been a low point for reporters according to MADA Public Relations Officer Riham Abu Aita who told The Media Line there were 200 violations against Palestinian journalists and media institutions from the beginning of the year until October.

 

“One hundred and thirty-three from the Israeli occupation, and 67 from Palestinian sources,” she added.

 

MADA’s report states that there were 46 violations in the Gaza Strip and 21 in the West Bank. According to the report, the PA security forces arrested six journalists, stopped two, interrogated three and prevented three more from coverage between January and October of this year. One journalist was sentenced in that year, and three were attacked. Other reporters, like Ruba Najjar, who found a broken bomb and a threatening letter following a report she did about street beggars, were targeted by unknown sources.

 

Abu Aita said that the violations arise when there is a political tension between Fatah in the West Bank and the Islamist Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In April 2012, the Palestinian Authority blocked eight websites critical of President Mahmoud Abbas before re-opening them again a few weeks later following a public outcry.

 

Damiri, the Security Forces spokesman, denied that there is any threat to the freedom of expression in the West Bank. He told The Media Line that reporters can file official complaints about any violation of their rights.

 

“The policemen make mistakes as well and can be held accountable,” he said. “There isn’t a policy to violate any rights or prevent a journalist from doing their work.”

 

Damiri said most of the journalists who are complaining are not biased in their reporting.

 

Written by Diana Atallah

 

Reprinted with permission from The Media Line

 

 

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