Photojournalist flees persecution by Palestinian Authority

Mohammad Alhaj 

Mohammad Alhaj

A Palestinian photojournalist says he was forced to flee to Jordan to escape threats of prosecution and imprisonment by the Palestinian Authority over his Facebook posts.

The Ramallah-based authority is using the same extreme surveillance, intimidation and detention tactics Israel deploys against Palestinian journalists and human rights defenders.

Mohammad Alhaj, 37, told The Electronic Intifada that in August he was contacted by the PA’s intelligence service offering him a job as an informant, ostensibly to spy on other journalists and media workers.

Alhaj, who has previously contributed to The Electronic Intifada, said he refused.

Several weeks later, in mid-September, he said he was summoned again by PA intelligence over a Facebook post he had re-published to a news group he administers.

At their offices in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, the intelligence officers repeatedly demanded he hand over passwords to his social media, email and messaging accounts, Alhaj said.

When he refused, Alhaj said he was threatened with criminal prosecution under the Electronic Crimes Law, which Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas decreed in July.

The decree imposes sweeping restrictions on what Palestinians are allowed to say online. It has been roundly condemned by Palestinian and international human rights and free speech defenders.

Amnesty International has urged its repeal.

“Instead of presiding over a chilling campaign designed to silence dissent, intimidate journalists and breach the privacy of individuals, the Palestinian authorities must stop arbitrarily detaining journalists and drop charges against anyone prosecuted for freely expressing themselves,” Amnesty’s regional director Magdalena Mughrabi said in August.

At least six Palestinian journalists across the West Bank were arrested in August by the PA and 29 websites were shut down, according to Amnesty.

Mughrabi told The Electronic Intifada that the law infringes on freedom of expression and breaches the privacy of journalists and activists.

“Under the new legislation, authorities oblige service providers to give authorities personal data about users and force them to retain data on users,” Mughrabi explained.

The right to know

The Facebook post Alhaj said sparked his investigation concerned a photo from July of a purported Palestinian Authority internal memo instructing officers to continue “security coordination” with Israel even though Abbas promised Palestinians that it would stop.

The PA annually receives hundreds of millions of dollars from the European Union and the United States, among other international donors claiming to promote human rights and free speech.

Yet this Western aid is typically conditioned on the PA’s role as a key enforcer of Israel’s occupation, under the banner of “security coordination” with the Israeli army and intelligence.

This includes collaboration with Israeli agencies that torture Palestinians.

Human rights groups have documented dozens of cases of Palestinians detained and interrogated by the PA prior to their arrest by Israel.

This photograph of an alleged internal memo, posted to Facebook, sparked a campaign of harassment and investigation against Mohammad Alhaj.

The memo purportedly from the PA’s civil affairs ministry instructs PA security branches that Abbas’ announcement that he was freezing contacts with Israel did not include “security coordination,” such as working with the Israeli military at crossings and checkpoints.

Alhaj said that the intelligence officers demanded to know his sources for the original Facebook post.

The right to know

After refusing to give officers access to his digital accounts, including his photojournalism portfolio website, Alhaj said, he was called back to PA intelligence.

But instead of returning to face further intimidation and possible imprisonment, he escaped to Jordan, where he remains.

As a journalist and citizen, Alhaj said he has the right to know what is happening politically and to discuss it online. “What they [the PA] are trying to do is to make their official news the only information for Palestinians. They don’t want Palestinians to hear or to see other news than what they’re publishing,” Alhaj said.

He said he left his wife and three young children behind, and could not tell them nor anyone else he was fleeing to Jordan.

Imprisoning dissent

Earlier this month, a Palestinian civil rights organization launched a petition calling on Abbas to repeal the Electronic Crimes Law, which was signed by hundreds of Palestinian groups.

“The PA now has the legal power to imprison any dissenting voice and it has not been shy about using it,” stated the prisoners’ rights group Addameer.

In September, the PA also used the Electronic Crimes Law to detain and charge prominent human rights activist Issa Amro over Facebook posts critical of the PA’s earlier arrest of the head of a radio station in Hebron.

Amro, who was released on bail by the PA, is already facing an Israeli military tribunal for his activism resisting the colonization of Hebron by Israeli settlers and soldiers.

Under Israel’s occupation, Palestinian security forces should work to protect Palestinians, Alhaj said, not monitor and silence them.

“I keep asking myself the same question,” Alhaj told The Electronic Intifada. “How much money is [the PA] spending just to spy on Palestinians?”

Sustained repression

Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former negotiator for the Palestine Liberation Organization, told The Electronic Intifada that as opposing political factions gain popularity – especially over the internet – Abbas has searched for ways to monitor dissent.

The Electronic Crimes Law ratchets up repression that has been mounting for years.

“Anybody who uses a VPN is considered to be contrary to the law,” Buttu explained, referring to to virtual private networks, a method to make an internet connection private.

Abbas’ decree also outlaws speech “harming national unity,” or damaging “social harmony” or “state security.”

“The fascinating thing is that there is no national unity,” Buttu said. “And in terms of the national interest, saying that the PA is collaborating with Israel, well, I’m not sure that security collaboration is in the Palestinian interest.”

Buttu said Abbas has taken Palestinians down “a very slippery slope” by emulating Israel’s repression of journalists and social media users.

“We’re already living in a police state without living in a state,” Buttu said.

Recently, Israeli forces raided and shut eight Palestinian media offices across the West Bank, confiscating equipment and arresting two staff.

Since 2015, Israel has arrested and jailed dozens of Palestinian journalists and approximately 800 social media users for what it calls “incitement.”

Israel has also pressured companies including Facebook to remove Palestinians’ social media content.

Israeli intelligence has recently developed so-called predictive policing computer algorithms to identify Palestinian “suspects” online, according to an analysis from the Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka, The Palestinian Policy Network.

Dareen Tatour, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, was jailed by Israel in 2015 over her poem, “Resist, my people, resist them,” which she posted to Facebook and YouTube.

But typically Israeli authorities do not reveal “to detainees which of their social media posts led to the issuance of a warrant for their arrest and their subsequent detention,” reports Adalah, a legal center for Palestinian citizens of Israel.

“Freely and safely”

“Journalists should be able to do their jobs freely, safely and without interference,” Justin Shilad, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told The Electronic Intifada.

He added that there is a “dark irony in the fact that both the Israeli authorities and the PA have similarly detained journalists and shuttered media outlets while, at the same time, pointing out the other’s lack of respect for democratic norms and human rights.”

In 2017 alone, Shilad said his group has documented abuses against journalists by Israel, Hamas in Gaza and the PA in the West Bank. “For all of their oft-stated differences, the one thing that seems to unite these forces is an apparent shared desire to silence journalists who speak truth to power,” Shilad said.

Meanwhile, Alhaj remains in Jordan without work and unable to tell his family when he can return home.

“I feel I am in the middle of nowhere,” he said.

Translation by Ali Abunimah.

Nora Barrows-Friedman is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada.