JERUSALEM (IPS) - As media freedoms throughout the occupied West Bank and Gaza continue to decline, human rights groups are urging that powerful governments put pressure on Israeli and Palestinian security forces to respect and facilitate the ability of journalists to do their work.
“We need international interference,” says Riham Abu Aita, public relations officer at the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA). “The biggest challenge is the Israeli occupation forces because 80 percent of the violations are committed by them.
“It’s sometimes very dangerous for journalists’ lives. In addition, the Palestinian security services in the West Bank and Gaza put restrictions on the journalists’ work. This increased after the Palestinian internal division between Fatah and Hamas,” Abu Aita added.
In its report on media freedom violations in September, which was released on 6 October, MADA found that the Israeli authorities carried out the most severe attacks on journalists. One particularly notable conclusion was that there had been a heightened use of tear gas and rubber bullets by Israeli forces during weekly, non-violent demonstrations in West Bank villages.
“We condemn all violations regardless of the violators: the Israeli occupation forces, settlers, Palestinian services. We condemn all the attacks but we believe that the Israeli attacks are more dangerous on a journalist’s life because many of them were bombed by gas and rubber bullets, and some of them were seriously injured,” Abu Aita said.
Harassment by Palestinian forces
Palestinian security forces — affiliated with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and affiliated with Hamas in the Gaza Strip — for their part, “continued to harass Palestinian journalists in the past month, with several journalists summoned for investigation as well as the complete prevention of coverage and broadcast of [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas’s UN address in the Gaza Strip on 23 September,” MADA reported.
“The journalists in Gaza can’t criticise the Hamas government and in the West Bank, it’s the same, [journalists can’t criticise the Fatah administration]. In Gaza, it’s worse than the West Bank: there is more self-censorship among journalists,” Abu Aita said.
“But we believe that ending the internal division and having reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas will dramatically decrease all the violations.”
On 5 October, Reporters Without Borders raised concerns about new regulations put in place by the Hamas government in Gaza that would make it harder for foreign journalists to access the coastal territory. Under the new rules, journalists entering Gaza through the Erez or Rafah border crossings would have to apply in advance to the interior ministry for permission to enter, and provide the name of a guarantor in Gaza during their stay.
Reporters Without Borders stated that these new regulations “will hamper journalists’ freedom of movement and complicate covering the Gaza Strip even more” and urged the Palestinian authorities “to rescind the decision and facilitate the international media’s access to the Gaza Strip.”
Al Jazeera bureau chief detained and threatened
Israel’s poor treatment of journalists also received international attention when, in early August, Samer Allawi, Al Jazeera’s Afghanistan bureau chief, was detained as he tried to leave the West Bank, where he had been visiting family.
Allawi was denied access to a lawyer for 12 days, never shown the evidence against him, and later said that Israeli interrogators threatened him with physical harm if he didn’t confess to having links to Hamas. He was held without charge for six weeks before admitting to conspiring to provide a service to an organization hostile to Israel (Hamas), in exchange for his release.
“Israel cannot justify violating Samer Allawi’s basic rights to due process, no matter what officials think he may have done. By detaining him for six weeks without charge and refusing to let him challenge the basis for his arrest, Israel is acting as though the principle of innocent until proven guilty doesn’t apply to Allawi,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said shortly before Allawi’s release.
According to MADA’s Riham Abu Aita, despite big cases such as Allawi’s gaining international attention, most violations of journalistic freedom committed by Israeli and Palestinian security forces go unreported for fear of retribution.
“Some of the journalists don’t want to talk because they believe if they talk about the violations, this will lead them to face more problems. Sometimes when a journalist has been detained and arrested, they are threatened not to talk to the human rights organizations about the violations,” she said.
Breaking through this wall of silence, Abu Aita added, is therefore crucial to allow journalists to cover stories without fear of arrest, intimidation or physical harm.
“It depends on their colleagues’ experience or their own experience, but journalists will often be more careful in writing and covering events,” she said. “The journalists should be united and talk more about the violations they face; writing about violations and monitoring the violations will help them.”
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