Palestinian journalists who incite against Israel are safe. But once a journalist dares to publish anything offensive to the PA, he or she is put behind bars and tortured, writes Bassam Tawil, a scholar based in the Middle East. This article first appeared in Gatestone.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) recently and not surprisingly announced that it was planning to file a complaint with international organizations over Israeli “assaults” and “crimes” against Palestinian journalists.
The Palestinian Ministry of Information condemned the “assaults” as a “war crime” and said it would urge the International Federation of Journalists to send a commission of inquiry to the Palestinian territories to launch an investigation against Israel.
Ironically, the PA’s announcement came only a few days after it ordered the closure of a newspaper office in Ramallah and the detention of a female journalist, Naela Khalil. The announcement also coincides with the PA’s ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression in the West Bank, where Palestinians are being arrested for posting critical remarks on social media.
The Palestinian Authority, of course, sees no need for international intervention to halt its own crackdown on freedom of speech. Nor, apparently, does it consider the closure of a newspaper office and the detention of journalists a “war crime” when it does it.
Earlier this month, the Palestinian Authority ordered the closure of the Ramallah-based Al-Araby Al-Jadeed online newspaper on the pretext that it was operating without a license from the Palestinian Ministry of Information. The decision to shut the newspaper came after Palestinian security officers had raided its offices several times and questioned employees about the nature of their work.
‘Offensive’ Article Results in Shutdown
The management of Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, however, said that it had applied for a license in December 2014, but had never received an answer from the Palestinian Ministry of Information.
A senior official with the Ministry later admitted that the decision to shut down the newspaper was taken after the publication of an article that was considered “offensive to the State of Palestine and its security institutions.” In other words, the decision had nothing to do with the newspaper not having obtained a license from the Ministry of Information in Ramallah.
The Palestinian Ministry of Information sent a letter to the Palestinian prosecutor-general urging him to authorize the closure of the newspaper. The letter explained why the newspaper had to be shut. The letter read: “A London-based newspaper that has an office in Ramallah recently published a report that offends the State of Palestine and its security agencies. The report portrayed our security forces as if they have nothing to do but arrest people and conduct security coordination with the occupation state (Israel). This is incitement against the Palestinian Authority and its security institutions. We therefore hope you will issue an order to close this unlicensed office.”
According to Palestinian journalists, the report that enraged the PA and prompted it to take action against Al-Araby Al-Jadeed was actually written by an Egyptian journalist, Shaima Al-Hadidi.
The report criticizes the Palestinian Authority for clamping down on journalists and political opponents in the West Bank and refers to security coordination between the Palestinian security forces and Israel.
“The Palestinian Authority does not hesitate to open the doors of its cells for [to hold] its opponents,” the report charged. “The Palestinian Authority prisons in Ramallah are full of dozens of political detainees accused of resisting occupation.”
Detainees Suffer Severe Torture
The report reveals that Palestinian detainees have been undergoing severe torture while under Palestinian Authority detention. In just one month last August, there were at least 12 cases in which detainees complained that they had been tortured by Palestinian Authority interrogators. Some detainees were denied medical treatment, the report said, and pointed out that during the past few years, ten Palestinians have died in Palestinian prisons. As far as we can see, no one from the European community took the slightest notice. Such information is presumably considered, in journalistic terms, “dog bites man:” The Palestinian leadership is abusing its own people again? Who cares, glad it’s not us.
Some of the Palestinians who died in detention were identified as Majd Barghouti of Ramallah, Fadi Hamadneh of Nablus, Arafat Jaradat of Hebron, Ayman Samara of Jenin, Nawaf Kawazbeh of Bethlehem, Rabi Mahmoud al-Jamal of Hebron and Raed al-Hitleh of Tulkarem.
In another case, Palestinian Authority security officers arrested the journalist Amer Abu Arafeh after raiding his home and confiscating documents, cameras and computers. Abu Arafeh latersaid that he was interrogated about Facebook entries he had posted, in which he had reportedly criticized the Palestinian Authority.
The report about Palestinian Authority human rights violations in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed angered the Palestinian Authority to a point where it felt that closing the newspaper’s Ramallah office was not enough. Last week, the newspaper’s correspondent, Naela Khalil, was detained for interrogation. After protests by her colleagues, the PA agreed to release her on bail.
The detention of Khalil is seen in the context of the Palestinian Authority’s continued effort to silence and intimidate Palestinian journalists who dare to criticize the Palestinian leadership and its institutions.
The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate and a few human rights groups in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have since condemned the decision to detain Khalil and shut the offices of her newspaper.
However, most Western human rights groups that regularly condemn Israel for its actions against Palestinians have, as usual, so far failed to respond to this latest assault by the Palestinian Authority on public freedoms. It is a punishment for freedom of expression that apparently bothers no one apart from us.
Criticizing Abbas is Forbidden
The cases of Al-Araby Al-Jadeed and Naela Khalil, the female journalist detained in Ramallah, show that the Palestinian Authority leadership effectively does not tolerate any form of criticism. Palestinian officials have accused the newspaper and its journalist of “incitement” against the Palestinian Authority. But this is the same Palestinian Authority that has long been engaged in a massive campaign of incitement against Israel, especially during the past few weeks.
The Palestinian Authority clearly wants a media that reports only against Israel. The only incitement permitted is the one directed there. Palestinian journalists who incite against Israel are safe; they do not face any form of harassment by the Palestinian Authority security forces. But once a journalist or a media outlet dares to publish anything that is considered “offensive” against the Palestinian Authority, they quickly find themselves behind bars in Ramallah.
It is forbidden to criticize President Mahmoud Abbas or any of his top officials. It is also forbidden to report about human rights violations and torture in Palestinian Authority prisons.
During the past few years, several Palestinians have been arrested or summoned for interrogation for posting critical remarks about Abbas and other Palestinian officials on Facebook.
But this is not a story that most Western journalists or supposed human rights groups are interested in covering. A story that reflects negatively on the Palestinian Authority or Hamas is not “news that is fit to print.” The Palestinian Authority’s crackdown on the media is not going to attract the attention of the mainstream media in the West because, as noted by the left-wing Associated Press reporter, Matti Friedman, the award-winning journalist Khaled Abu Toameh and a few others, such stories lack an anti-Israel angle. Had Al-Araby Al-Jadeed been shut by Israeli authorities, the story would probably have made it to the front pages of most newspapers in the U.S. and Europe.
As such, the Palestinian Authority and President Abbas have no reason to be worried about the response of the international community to their continued assaults on freedom of expression. They can continue to arrest as many journalists as they like and close newspaper offices without having to worry about a backlash from the media, so-called human rights groups or the international community.
The Palestinian Authority is now demanding international protection for its journalists against Israeli “assaults.” But the real question that the international human rights organizations need to ask the Palestinian Authority when its leaders come calling to complain about Israeli “violations” is:
Who is going to protect Palestinian journalists from the Palestinian Authority and its security forces?