Palestinian journalists never intended to become part of the news in the days after the killing of activist Nizar Banat, but the brutal treatment and the arrest of many of them at the hands of the Palestinian Authority security forces has forced them to call for international intervention and protection.
Dozens of journalists demonstrated outside the office of the United Nations High Commissioner in Ramallah in the West Bank this week demanding an urgent intervention.
They handed the UN commissioner a letter asking him to take a stand to stop the attacks that have so far affected at least 30 journalists.
Palestinian Authority security forces attacked protesters and journalists in the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Hebron and Bethlehem, as well as the Dheisheh refugee camp located just south of Bethlehem earlier in the week, after five days of demonstrations over the death of one of the PA’s most prominent critics, Nizar Banat, who died while in custody on Thursday.
Journalist Mohammed Ghafari says he was not surprised by the PA security forces behavior.
“Journalists were allowed to report, but what happened next was that we were brutally assaulted, and our equipment smashed,” he says.
Ghafari says the suppression of demonstrators and journalists by security forces in civilian clothes is frightening.
“It seems that there was a clear decision to prevent us from covering,” he says.
Ghafari, who was attacked and injured when pushed by the plainclothes security forces said that “this was done because the PA wants to hide the truth.”
“The Palestinian Authority is aware of the extent of the damage that could be inflicted upon it if the images of repression against the demonstrators and journalists by security personnel goes out,” he said.
The harsh treatment left some with bruises, while others were arrested and later released, and many saw their equipment damaged or confiscated.
Journalist Najla Zeitoun was physically beaten and her phone was forcibly taken away.
She says that she was wearing a vest emblazoned with the word “Press” with her press card issued by the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate hanging around her neck while covering the demonstration. Video of the attack was posted on Twitter.
Zeitoun says that while covering the protest and using her phone to document the beating by the police, she felt someone from behind trying to snatch her phone from her hand.
“I was beaten in the chest and with sticks on my left shoulder despite my screaming that I was a journalist. A security officer took my phone and ran away,” she says.
Zeitoun says female journalists were targeted by the security forces using obscene language threatening them with rape.
“Another fellow female journalist was dragged and they tried to take her phone by force. I do not sleep at home and there is no feeling of security,” she says.
The security forces also used tear gas canisters to disperse the journalists.
Zeitoun says that she has received threatening phone calls that say that if she doesn’t stop covering the protests, videos and photos on her phone will be made public.
“My phone was stolen by the security, it has my photos, my family photos. My privacy is shattered. They are blackmailing us,” Zeitoun says.
“I am defamed, and they now use social media claiming that I’m a foreign agent and receive money from the outside.”
James Heenan, the head of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Palestine, called for urgent and necessary measures to protect journalists.
“Journalists turned to the United Nations and human rights organizations because of the repeated attacks on journalists,” Ghafari says.
“These attacks are repeated, and the perpetrators are not held accountable or punished, and no serious steps have been taken to protect journalists.”
Human rights groups in the West Bank announced the formation of a legal team to follow up on the attacks on journalists.
Many of the journalists were threatened, and subjected to persecution, beatings and pushing, and were blocked from doing their work.
They have aimed their dissatisfaction at the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate. Many members tore the press cards issued by the union in protest; others dropped their membership.
“There is a state of frustration against the body that is supposed to protect us because of their absence, they only issued two softly worded statements condemning what happened,” according to Ghafari.
The syndicate issued a statement following the events calling on journalists to boycott all official PA events.