Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – George Canawati was not surprised when Palestinian Authority (PA) police forces showed up at his Bethlehem home in November 2013. It was, after all, his fourth arrest and detention related to journalism.
As the host of Radio Bethlehem 2000, a popular local talk show, he was arrested for “slander and insults” after criticising local police commander Colonel Omar Shalabi.
“The way they arrested me this time was barbaric,” Canawati, who has been a radio journalist for over 15 years, told Al Jazeera. “The previous times they arrested me at my office, but this time they came to my home. They walked in, hit me, interrogated me and detained me.”
Caught between the Israeli occupation and what some consider their increasingly repressive leadership, Palestinian journalists are no strangers to fear and intimidation.
From a total of 180 countries, Israel landed the 96th spot for worst violators of press freedoms, according to Reporters Without Borders’ 2014 Press Freedom Index, an annual publication that ranks governments’ treatment of journalists. The occupied Palestinian territories – including the PA-controlled West Bank and the Hamas-administered Gaza Strip – earned the 138th ranking.
Canawati was released without charge after 24 hours, but he is certain it will not be his last detention. He had previously been arrested in June 2013 for “slander and defamation” after reporting on internal divisions within Fatah, the ruling political party in the West Bank. Back in 2011, he was arrested for criticising medical services in Bethlehem.
The larger problem, though, is that the people in charge who disagree with these arrests continue to cover up the actions of individuals.
He also was detained for five days in November 2010, after he broadcast a short news segment about tensions between PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammed Dahlan, a senior member of Fatah currently based in Dubai.
Arrests are often carried out as a result of personal grudges authorities or officials have against journalists, Canawati said. “The larger problem, though, is that the people in charge who disagree with these arrests continue to cover up the actions of individuals.”
Following Canawati’s most recent detention and the arrest of Sami al-Sa’i, who was detained for reporting on a buildup of PA security forces in Jenin refugee camp, dozens of journalists gathered outside the office of Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah to demand an end to press freedom violations.
Islam Shahwan, the Ministry of Interior spokesperson, did not reply to repeated inquiries about whether there has been an investigation into allegations that the government has targeted the press.
Palestinians “live under decaying laws”, Yousef al-Shayeb, who was also arrested by the PA for his journalism, told Al Jazeera.
The Ramallah-based Shayeb, who works for the Palestinian Al-Ayyam newspaper, penned an investigative report at the Jordanian Al-Ghad newspaper which alleged that the Palestinian diplomatic mission to France was hiring Palestinian students to spy on Muslim student organisations in France.
Shayeb’s January 2012 article implicated several high-ranking Palestinian officials, such as Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki, Deputy Ambassador Sawfat Ibraghit and Palestinian National Fund Director Ramzi Khouri. The politicians submitted libel claims against Shayeb and demanded $6m compensation, the largest amount ever requested in PA courts.
Yousef is a free journalist and can operate freely.
Shayeb was summoned to an eight-hour interrogation at the PA’s intelligence headquarters on January 29, 2012. Interrogators ordered that he name the anonymous sources used in his article. “I refused to hand over my sources,” he said, citing journalistic protections in Article 4 of the PA’s 1995 Press and Publications Law.
Like Canawati, he was subsequently rearrested and charged with “slander and defamation” in late March 2012.
The Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) and the Palestinian Journalists Guild were denied requests to visit the journalist while he was in detention. In response to being held in solitary confinement, Shayeb launched a hunger strike till he was released on bail 15 days later.
“The problem is not with the legal system”, but the “lack of accountability”, Shayeb said. “We have laws to protect us”, and the government “claims that journalists’ right to information is as large as the sky. We think that should be reflected in the [application of the] law”.
Ehab Bseiso, a government spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, told Al Jazeera that: “Yousef is a free journalist and can operate freely.”
He dismissed allegations of intimidation and abuse among Palestinian journalists at the hands of the Palestinian Authority, stating: “These sorts of claims happen everywhere. This issue is raised in every country.”
tend to target journalists sympathetic to Fatah, and the [Fatah-led] Palestinian Authority tends to return the favour.”]
Jason Stern, a research associate for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a group that monitors violations of press freedoms across the globe, explained that the ongoing division of Palestinian leadership is one of the primary factors behind press violations.
“Hamas authorities [in Gaza] tend to target journalists sympathetic to Fatah, and the [Fatah-led] Palestinian Authority tends to return the favour,” Stern told Al Jazeera.
The greatest risks occur at demonstrations, Stern said, as journalists “are not only exposed to dangerous crowd control measures but also are often detained and have their equipment confiscated”.
The PA and Hamas have committed at least 500 documented press violations since 2007, including arrests, detention, torture, physical violence and censorship, according to the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA).
Journalists are consequently forced to work in a political climate that has increasingly “led to the promotion of self-censorship among journalists, and media outlets”, the MADA press release observed.
As recent as January 12, PA security forces detained journalists covering clashes between police and residents of Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem. Security forces subsequently deleted footage of the clashes from the journalists’ cameras.
Back in August 2013, the PA prevented journalists from covering a Hamas-organised protest in solidarity with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in Hebron, a Palestinian city in the southern West Bank. That month alone, the PA was accused of at least eight violations against media freedoms, observed ICHR’s monthly report.
Access to information
Israel, the PA and Hamas committed a combined total of at least 500 press violations in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory during 2013, according to a new CPJ report.
Palestinian reporters are supposed to be able to work freely, according to article 27 of the Amended Basic Law of 2003 which serves as the PA’s constitution.
In February, the government started gathering public input to improve a draft of the Access to Information law, proposed legislation that was created to improve journalistic oversight of public institutions, including the government’s security apparatus.
The Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Interior failed to reply to Al Jazeera’s several requests for comment about the progress of the legislation.
“Even if the law is passed, no one is going to apply it,” Canawati said. “I will continue my work like I always do but even stronger. If they arrest me again, I no longer care.”