Earlier this month, Jihad Barakat, a journalist with Palestine Today TV, was on his way from the northern West Bank city of Nablus to a village in the Tulkarem area to visit family, when he noticed something unusual at an Israeli military checkpoint.
In contravention of protocol, Israeli soldiers were searching the convoy of Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. Barakat took out his phone and documented the incident; hours later, he was detained by Palestinian security forces.
Media rights activists and journalists quickly took to social media to voice frustration and demand that Barakat be released. A hashtag "Where is Jihad" was assigned to social media posts condemning his detention, and a protest was held by journalists in front of the prime minister's office. The local journalists' union was contacted to act on his behalf.
Barakat was eventually released on bail, charged with a litany of unusual offences, including panhandling. He faces trial in September and colleagues fear that his detention, as well as other arrests in recent weeks, are an attempt to stifle their work and silence legitimate criticism of the PA.
The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedom (MADA) noted that the number of violations against journalists, by both the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, was significantly higher in June than in the previous month.
In addition to a curtailing of media freedoms by the PA, Palestinian journalists in the West Bank often face obstacles to their work from Israeli authorities, including detention, harassment and movement restrictions; many have been killed or injured in the line of work. In Gaza, journalists complain of intimidation by Hamas, which controls the besieged territory.
"This year, we've seen an escalation of attacks against journalists from various parties," said Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa programme coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. "This includes prosecution and arrests by both the PA and Hamas to silence or to punish independent political journalists who support the other party."
On June 8, authorities in Gaza detained Fouad Jaradeh, a reporter with the PA-run Palestine TV, prompting a denouncement by the International Federation of Journalists: "Hamas security forces must stop preying on Gaza journalists and systematically violating their fundamental rights," the federation president, Philippe Leruth, said.
Authorities are still holding Jaradeh, whose arrest came two months after another Palestine TV journalist, Taghreed Abu Tir, was taken into custody and held for 10 days. He was arrested on suspicion of working "in complicity with Ramallah", a reference to the PA, and "misusing technology". The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate said Jaradeh was coerced into giving false testimony.
In 2016, MADA documented 134 violations against journalists by the PA and Hamas-run authorities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. While the number of violations against media personnel decreased from the previous year, the group noted an escalation in the "degrading treatment of journalists during interrogation and arrest," which it said could be tantamount to torture.
The group also noted that journalists were being persecuted for personal posts written on social media. Since Barakat's release, at least five West Bank-based journalists said they had been ordered in for questioning by the internal Palestinian security apparatus.
Concerns over the shrinking space in which journalists can operate were heightened in June, when the PA blocked 29 websites with affiliations either to Hamas or to Mohammad Dahlan, the former Gaza strongman, an ally-turned-foe of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"The PA move to ban websites and to exert control on content on the web is very alarming," Mansour said. Among the blocked websites is the Hamas-affiliated Palestinian Information Center and the pro-Dahlan Amad website.
A new "Electronic Crimes" law passed by the PA has also left journalists worried about restrictions on their work. According to Ramallah-based journalist and media expert Nour Odeh, the law fills several necessary gaps in relation to fraud, online blackmail, child pornography, identity theft and other major crimes that are absent from the existing legal body.
"But the law also uses very vague terms to define offences that could be used to pursue political opposition or journalists. Terms like public good, national security, civil peace," she said. "Some articles in the law would [also] force journalists to reveal their sources, and naturally, we all have a problem with that."
MADA's director general, Mousa Rimawi, noted that "civil society was not consulted in drafting [the law] and it was issued under strict secrecy", adding that "some of its articles affect the right to freedom of expression and privacy rights".
Media rights groups believe authorities in both Gaza and the West Bank are using journalists as pawns in a political game. Fatah and Hamas have been at loggerheads for more than a decade, and all attempts to reconcile the two parties so far have failed. The split has torpedoed efforts to hold national elections, leaving Abbas almost 12 years into what should have been a four-year presidential term.
Abbas' popularity has plummeted in recent years, with as many as 65 percent wanting to see him resign, according to one poll. With his dwindling popularity, the crackdown on dissident voices grew, especially journalists who have documented public disgruntlement over the PA's security coordination with Israel.
One such incident occurred in January 2016, when Palestinian security forces detained Salim Sweidan for a report published on his website that accused the PA of aiding Israeli authorities in detaining locals from the village of Beit Furiq after the killing of an Israeli settler and his wife. Sweidan was charged with slander, falsifying information, and inciting hate and violence.
"That shows you how ... journalists are either suffering the consequences of doing their jobs and telling the news or being used as pawns used by the PA and Hamas to settle their political differences," Mansour said.
Source: Al Jazeera