Palestinian Authority jails journalist for publishing exposé on foreign ministry

30 March 2012

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Osama Silwadi at a protest outside detained journalist Yousef al-Shayab’s court hearing in Ramallah on Wednesday.

(Issam Rimawi / APA images)

The Palestinian Authority imprisoned journalist Yousef al-Shayab Wednesday because of something he wrote, and because he insists on protecting his sources, say his colleagues. Al-Shayab hit back by announcing in court he would go on hunger strike.

Based on anonymous sources, al-Shayab’s January article alleged that the PA diplomatic mission to France was involved in spying on Muslim student groups for the benefit of “Palestinian and foreign security.” It also alleged that PA Foreign Minister Riad Malki helped cover up the scandal.

Al-Shayeb was first imprisoned in January, soon after the article was published in Jordanian newspaper Al-Ghad. He was interrogated for eight hours, during which time they demanded to know his sources, said al-Shayeb’s colleague Fadi Arouri, a journalist who works for the Xinhua news agency.

But al-Shayeb refused to reveal his sources, insisting on the customary journalistic protection. Soon after release, he was fired from his position at Al-Ghad newspaper, said Arouri.

But he was arrested for another two days on Monday and a PA court on Thursday extended his remand for a further 15 days while “slander” and “defamation” charges against him are investigated, according to Wafa, a news agency aligned with the PA. This time will be used for further interrogation, said Arouri.

“A message to all Palestinian journalists”

Such a long period of detention on remand is not normal, said Arouri. It is “a message to all Palestinian journalists,” he told The Electronic Intifada. Granting of bail during such investigations is more usual, and there have been many similar cases brought against Palestinian journalists in recent months, said Arouri.

During a court hearing Wednesday, al-Shayeb said he would go on hunger strike to protest his detention, said Arouri. Palestinian journalists demonstrated outside the court building in Ramallah to protest as well. It was the third demonstration they have held to support him, said Arouri. Journalists are now discussing a potential boycott of PA press conferences and meetings while al-Shayeb is detained, he added.

Osama Silwadi, another independent Palestinian journalist and photographer, pointed out the hypocrisy of detaining a journalist on the very week that the PA had announced a new annual “press freedom award” due to be held in May. Palestinian journalists and their union are now calling for the event to be boycotted due to the PA’s treatment of al-Shayeb.

“If they have anything against him they could go to the court” and wait for the investigation without putting him in prison or pressuring him to reveal his sources, Silwadi told the Electronic Intifada.

Silwadi uses a wheelchair after being hit by a stray bullet that had been fired in the air by demonstrating Palestinian fighters on 7 October 2006. According to Silwadi, “[that] man left the jail before I left the hospital” and was not charged, while al-Shayeb is in jail just for something he wrote. He describes this repression as “a message to all journalists to stop writing.”

Allegations of corruption

Arouri said the “slander” case is being brought against al-Shayeb jointly by Malki himself, the foreign ministry and the French representative office. The latter is demanding $6 million from al-Shayeb for “psychological damages,” says Arouri.

The controversial article had revolved around allegations of corruption and spying at the PA’s representative office in France. Safwat Ibraghit, the deputy ambassador, was at the center of the allegations made by the anonymous sources in al-Shayeb’s article. The article painted a picture of a mafia run out of the embassy by Ibraghit, who allegedly attempted to exert control over Palestinian student groups in Paris.

Zuheir al-Asari, a Palestinian from Jerusalem with French citizenship, released a video addressed to PA President Mahmoud Abbas on YouTube on Wednesday, in which he backed up al-Shayeb’s work and called for him to be released.

In the video, al-Asari says al-Shayeb’s account fit with his own personal experiences in Paris from when he was head of the General Union of Palestinian Students there a decade ago. He shows photos of a head wound and back bruises, saying Ibraghit personally assaulted him, and as a result was eventually imprisoned for five months in Paris.

The PA Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the diplomatic mission in France could not be reached for comment, and did not return phone calls. Riad Maliki is in Baghdad this week for the Arab League summit.

Lack of press freedoms in West Bank

Israeli abuses against Palestinian journalists are well-documented, but the role of the Palestinian Authority in repressing free speech in the West Bank is perhaps less well-known.

Another Palestinian journalist was arrested for something he wrote at the end of January. According to a press release by MADA, a Palestinian press freedom group, Rami Samara was arrested at his office on 31 January and held for nearly four hours. He had written a critical commentary about Palestine Liberation Organization negotiations with Israel in Amman on his Facebook page (“MADA Condemns the Arrest of the Journalist Rami Samara in Ramallah”).

The Palestinian territories including the West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip was placed at 153 out of 179 on the Reporters Without Borders 2011-12 Press Freedom Index. RSF included the PA’s security forces on its 2010 list of “Forty predators of press freedom” along with the Israeli army and Hamas forces in Gaza. According to the group, “security forces and intelligence service controlled by President Mahmoud Abbas made many arbitrary arrests of pro-Hamas journalists in 2010.”

Amnesty International’s 2011 annual report on the PA states that “[b]oth the PA in the West Bank and the Hamas de facto administration in Gaza maintained tight controls on freedom of expression, and harassed and prosecuted journalists, bloggers and other critics.”

Asa Winstanley (www.winstanleys.org) is an investigative journalist based in London.