Ramallah, occupied West Bank – Palestinian journalists in the occupied West Bank are facing increased harassment, arrests and violence from the Palestinian Authority since the death of activist Nizar Banat in PA custody, according to reporters and media rights groups.
The death of Banat, a prominent critic of the PA, on June 24 set off weeks of protests. As PA security forces violently cracked down on the demonstrations, many journalists covering the protests were also beaten, arrested, and had equipment smashed or confiscated.
“Palestine witnessed a wide wave of serious attacks against journalists and media freedoms,” said the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) in its July monthly report.
“[June] witnessed a dangerous and remarkable development, as the Palestinian violations, in a rare case, exceeded the Israeli attacks in terms of number,” reported MADA.
MADA recorded 69 violations against Palestinian journalists by different Palestinian parties in the West Bank and Gaza in June, including 17 incidents of physical assault and two arrests, 11 confiscation and destruction of journalists’ equipment, 21 incidents of denial of coverage, eight threatening cases and seven serious defamation cases, in addition to several other violations.
This compared with six cases of media violations by Palestinian parties in May and three in April, MADA reported.
MADA said there “was a clear official Palestinian attempt” to prevent media coverage of the protests in the West Bank after Banat’s killing, “without any consideration for press freedoms or the safety of journalists”.
During a protest in Ramallah in June, freelance journalist Saja al-Alami, who was trying to cover the demonstration, said she narrowly escaped being assaulted by plain-clothed PA security forces.
“I was surrounded by several men who tried to grab my camera, even though I identified myself as a journalist and was dressed in my press garb, but I managed to run away with the help of colleagues who stopped them from grabbing me and hitting me,” al-Alami told Al Jazeera.
She said the men pursued her into the women’s toilets of a Ramallah mall, where she sheltered inside a locked cubicle.
“Eventually they left, but I continued to hide in the toilet for an hour before phoning my colleagues who were able to smuggle me out of the building that was full of police,” she said.
Halima Abu Haneya, a Palestinian social sciences expert, said the PA’s growing animosity towards the media was exacerbated by coverage of the Banat case and the PA’s passive stance during the recent war between Israel and Palestinian groups in Gaza.
The PA has also faced growing criticism from protesters and rights groups for its perceived authoritarianism, corruption, and cooperation with the Israeli occupation.
“It seems there was an under-the-table decision to silence journalists who are critical of the PA and whose work may create more public awareness as to the negative behaviour of some sections of the PA,” Abu Haneya told Al Jazeera.
“Additionally, criticism of the PA further weakens an already very weak government and PA employees are afraid of losing their positions, power and their employment,” she said.
The PA did not respond to requests for comment. However, it has previously denied arrests of journalists are politically motivated and has said that freedom of speech and the rights of the media were respected.
On June 28, PA Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh’s office released a statement regarding the formation of a committee to investigate Banat’s death.
“The Prime Minister stressed the right of every citizen to express his opinion in accordance with the democratic principles, affirming the independence of the judiciary and its decisions, and respect for the freedom of the press and media, calling on everyone to show responsibility and not to distort the issues in favour of certain political agendas and defamation campaigns,” the statement read, according to Wafa news agency.
However, MADA said in a report published at the end of June that it viewed “with great seriousness the dangerous deterioration in freedom of expression, which is now subject to serious violations by security agencies that are supposed to protect citizens, journalists and media workers, and not violate their rights”.
“Journalists see the need to revise the Palestinian Penal Code to eliminate some of the charges that journalists face during their work, such as defamation, slander, and libel,” MADA media spokesperson Shireen al-Khatib told Al Jazeera.
She said Palestinian journalists were also trying to work in such a way as to minimise their chances of arrest and avoid confrontations with security forces.
“Journalists try to work collectively when covering events related to the PA, they wear press uniforms and carry signs showing the media institution for which they work,” she said.
“Additionally, they adhere to the distance set by the security forces for covering events while some try to avoid the places where big protests break out,” said al-Khatib.
Yet, while reporters and rights groups say the issues they have faced in recent weeks are just an intensification of longer-term trends.
‘Unable to protect rights’
Reporters Without Borders (RWB) ranked Palestine 132 out of 182 countries for freedom of the media in 2020.
RWB said that the political rivalry between Fatah, which dominates the PA, and Hamas, which governs Gaza, meant that journalists paid the price and faced “threats, heavy-handed interrogation, arrest without charge, intimidatory lawsuits and prosecutions, and bans on covering certain events”.
“Several websites regarded by the PA as opposition media have been inaccessible since 2017. Online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter also sometimes censor information.
“Under Israeli political pressure, these platforms have deleted content or suspended the accounts of Palestinian journalists and media outlets accused of inciting violence,” said RWB.
Naela Khalil has worked as a journalist with Al-Araby Al-Jadeed in the occupied West Bank for nearly seven years and has had several run-ins with the PA’s security forces.
“I’ve been fighting for five years to get a media licence for our organisation,” she told Al Jazeera.
“My lawyers processed all the necessary papers but when I went to the PA Ministry of Information to enquire why we had not been given one I was told that I had written many critical articles regarding corruption and lack of media freedom within the PA and that they’d had enough of me,” said Khalil.
Shawan Jabarin, the director of the Palestinian rights group Al Haq in Ramallah, told Al Jazeera that “there are no institutions that have the power to protect [Palestinian] media freedom.”
“There are many rights written into Palestinian basic law but they are not institutionalised and therefore, are unable to protect rights,” said Jabarin.
“There is only one power, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, and the judiciary is not fully independent but in the hands of the executive power,” Jabarin added.
“Nothing will change without elections to build institutions and separate the judicial, executive and legislative powers of the PA.”