The Palestinian Authority (PA) has been trying to muzzle press freedom and freedom of expression under the rubric of “upholding the rule of law”.

Fettering the press in Ramallah

By Khalid Amayreh
Frustrated with the dead end in the supposed peace process with Israel, Palestinian Authority leaders are getting increasingly edgy about criticism, writes Khalid Amayreh in Ramallah
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has been trying to muzzle press freedom and freedom of expression under the rubric of “upholding the rule of law”.Several Palestinian journalists have been interrogated and imprisoned of late in connection with articles they wrote or opinions they voiced about leading PA figures, including President Mahmoud Abbas.

One of the highlighted cases is that of Youssef Shayeb who has been put in jail since mid-March following an article he penned mid-January exposing alleged financial and administrative corruption plaguing the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) diplomatic mission in Paris.

In the article, which was published in the Jordanian newspaper Al-Ghad, Shayeb alleged that members of the Palestinian mission in Paris were involved in financial mismanagement, illegal security operations and espionage for the benefit of unnamed foreign intelligence organisations. Shayeb quoted detailed testimony from anonymous sources that he refused to disclose.

Initially, the Ramallah Magistrates Court decided to remand Shayeb for 48 hours pending further interrogation. This led him to declare a hunger strike in protest at “this flagrant treatment”.

The Palestinian press law, which is yet to be complete and take a final form, prevents the executive authority — via the security agencies — from questioning or interrogating or harassing journalists over matters pertaining to their professional work. However, the PA security apparatus has more or less failed to uphold the rule of law in this regard, often justifying its encroachment and abuse by citing security considerations.

According to Shayeb’s wife, Badeia, the interrogation of her husband centred on the identity of his sources, although the Palestinian press law, in its fourth clause, grants journalists the right to keep their sources anonymous.

“The attorney-general has no right to demand that a given journalist disclose his or her sources unless there is a court order to this effect.”

The attorney general’s office, however, argued that the interrogation of Shayeb and his subsequent detention was legal, “because no one, including journalists, has the right to defame, libel and smear the reputation of people without indicting evidence.”

The office said it was duty bound to address formal complaints by those whose names were mentioned in the investigative article, including PA Foreign Minister Riyadh Maliki, the Palestinian ambassador to France, and his deputy.

Ahmed Al-Mughni, the attorney-general, told reporters in Ramallah this week that Shayeb was charged with defamation and libel as well as perjury in violation of the law.

The continued arrest of Shayeb generated protests by Palestinian journalists who called on Abbas to free the man. However, sources at Abbas’s office pointed out that the president couldn’t and wouldn’t interfere with the work of the judiciary.

On Sunday, 2 April, the Magistrates Court decided to release Shayeb on bail, set at $7000. However, Shayeb is still in jail, apparently due to the intervention of “powerful people” within the PA regime.

Another less publicised case involving PA encroachment on freedom of expression has been that of journalist Ismat Abdel-Khaleq who has been in jail for over a week over “insulting and ridiculing” PA Chairman Abbas on her Facebook page.

The female journalist was transferred to hospital on Monday, 3 April, following deterioration in her health. She has been remanded for 15 days for further investigation.

According to Nehad Abu Gohsh, a Journalists’ Union spokesman, Abdel-Khaleq has been interrogated by the Preventive Security Services. Abdel-Khaleq reportedly argued that the controversial content on her Facebook page was not hers, but comments added by others.

The attorney-general charged the journalist with verbally abusing high-ranking government officials, a charge many journalists are worried will muzzle press freedom and seriously undermine the ability of the press to carry out its function as a watchdog over the government.

The increasingly draconian PA approach to press freedom and other civil liberties is raising many eyebrows in the occupied West Bank. One PA official intimated to Al-Ahram Weekly that the Ramallah regime is feeling increasingly insecure due to the political dead end facing the peace process with Israel.

A visibly frustrated Abbas has been saying he will send a “decisive letter” to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, warning — even threatening — that the Palestinians would soon abandon the two-state solution strategy if Israel continued to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

In an article published this week, Fatah’s leading figure in the occupied territories, Ahmed Qurei argued that it was pointless and irresponsible to continue pursuing a peace process that is void of any real content.

He called the peace process, among other things, a mirage, a great deception and a big lie, pointing to ongoing Israeli efforts to de-Arabise and de-Islamicise the demographic and cultural identity of occupied East Jerusalem.

The PLO hopes to establish a viable and territorially contiguous Palestinian state on the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital. However, intensive and ubiquitous expansion of Jewish colonies throughout the West Bank, especially in Jerusalem, has rendered this Palestinian hope unrealistic.

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