JERUSALEM (IPS) - The Palestinian Authority’s arrest of journalists and activists critical of its policies are threatening freedom of expression in the West Bank, according to local human rights groups.
“We monitored a new trend of arresting people and journalists and the oppression of freedom of expression,” Shawan Jabarin, director of the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq, said. “There are many people I’m sure that are afraid and will count to ten before they say anything. Maybe they’ll push people to speak underground instead of expressing their opinions freely.”
In the most recent case, the Palestinian Authority security forces summoned 23-year-old Hasan Abbadi for interrogation near his home in the West Bank village Sebastia, in the Nablus area. Abbadi, a student at An-Najah University, was accused of “creating disunity” through his political cartoons.
He spent some days in jail, before being released on 3,000 Jordanian dinars ($4,200) bail, and is currently awaiting trial.
Failure to protect freedom
“I think they’re using different words here and there, just to undermine these people in the eyes of the public and to say that they are creating trouble and creating divisions. It’s a political judgement more than [anything] illegal,” said Jabarin.
Jabarin said most charges leveled against Palestinian journalists are based on the Jordanian Penal Code, dating back to 1960. Palestinian attorney general Ahmad al-Maghni has failed to protect Palestinian freedoms in the West Bank and should be held responsible for the arrests, he added.
“Al-Maghni’s role is to protect the freedoms and the rights of the people in the face of arbitrary detention, instead of arresting people. Here, we see him acting quickly and exaggerating with all of these [charges]. And at the same time, he’s closing his ears and his eyes on the crimes going on,” Jabarin said.
“He is not taking into his mind that the law that he is using was approved in 1960 and these days, we are in 2012 and the main principle now in all the world is freedom of expression.”
Arrested for Facebook posts
PA security forces have arrested dozens of Palestinian journalists, bloggers, students and activists in recent weeks. Many have been detained for statements they made on social networking sites like Facebook that were critical of the PA, while others were targeted for articles and other work they published.
Jordan Valley activist Jamal Abu-Rihan was interrogated on 1 April in relation to a Facebook page he runs that pushes for an end to corruption. He was accused of writing political statements against PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Palestinian journalist Yousef al-Shayab was also arrested, in late March, after publishing an investigative report in the Jordanian al-Ghad newspaper that questioned the activities of the Palestinian Authority embassy in Paris, and refusing to reveal his sources.
“The protection of sources is universally accepted as an essential tenet of independent reporting,” president of the International Federation of Journalists, Jim Boumelha, said in a statement condemning the arrest. “Journalists the world over will be outraged that [al-Shayab] has been sentenced for upholding such a basic principle. He has no case to answer and should be released immediately.”
Al-Shayab was eventually jailed and accused of libel and of creating disunity among Palestinians. He conducted a hunger strike in protest against his detention before being released on bail in early April. Protests were also held in the West Bank while al-Shayab was in prison, calling for his release. He is now awaiting trial.
“Arrests and harassment and attacks against journalists in Palestine are enhancing fear and censorship among journalists,” Moussa Rinawi, director of the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) said.
“The level of local media will become worse and worse, and psychologically, it is affecting journalists. We are against harassment and attacks against journalists, either by the Israeli side or Palestinians.”
In late April, Ma’an News Agency reported that the PA had instructed Internet service providers to block access to news websites that were critical of Abbas.
Since the report came out, PA communications minister Mashour Abu Daka has resigned from his post. Attorney General al-Maghni, for his part, has defended the decision to block the websites, arguing that they were censored for security reasons and because personal complaints had been made against their content.
According to Rinawi, the censorship is a bad sign for media freedoms in Palestine.
“We were proud that the Internet is open in Palestine and there is no censorship on the Internet and any journalist can post anything and can open any site. The last few months, we noticed there is some control of Facebook and social media in general, and they blocked some sites. It’s a bad phenomenon,” Rinawi said.
He added that mobilizing Palestinian campaign groups in order to protect freedom of speech is crucial.
“When there is a strong reaction on the arrest of [al-Shayab], they released him. We need to increase the pressure from the Palestinian civil society organizations. Civil society activities are having a result.”
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