Hypocrisy frequently rears its ugly head in the Middle East, but the Palestinian Authority (PA) has just succeeded in producing something close to a new examplar on the issue of media freedom. As a Jerusalem Post editorial (“Palestinian responsibility”, 2/4/2012) has documented, the Palestinian Authority is intensifying an ongoing crackdown on journalists operating in the West Bank, while at the same time it’s introducing a new award honouring press freedom.
At first glance, this might seem simply inconsistent or even contradictory – celebrating freedom of press while Palestinian journalists are being constantly arrested and their work hindered and obstructed. But when considering which journalists are the recipients of such honours, it makes more sense- Helen Thomas recently received a medal from Palestinian officials, on behalf of PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Just a reminder: Thomas, a former long-serving senior White House writer, suggested on camera in May 2010 that Israelis “need to get out of Palestine, and return home to Germany, Poland, and America.” After making these antisemitic comments she was forced to resign and was widely criticised. The Society of Professional Journalists decided to discontinue the yearly lifetime achievement award in her name. Since then, she has made further antisemitic comments. But it appears that what is considered offensive and hateful by Thomas’ colleagues, is commendable in the eyes of the Palestinian leadership.
Last Sunday Thomas received the award in an event in her honour organised by Ma’en Areikat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) General Mission to the U.S., and attended by diplomats and journalists in Washington. According to a statement by PLO representatives in Washington, she received the award in recognition of her “long career in the field of journalism, during which she defended the Palestinian position every step of the way.” The medal was presented to Thomas by no other than PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi “with the appreciation and blessing of the president and the Palestinian people, for all of her actions supporting Palestine in the West.”
So, in PA terminology, ‘Press Freedom’ appears to be a euphemism for “defending the Palestinian position” or “supporting Palestine in the West” – especially by demanding all of mandate Palestine be ethnically cleansed of Jews.
This may explain how the same Palestinian leadership in also responsible for an intensifying crackdown on journalists from the West Bank, aimed at intimidating journalists and discouraging them from expressing criticism of the Palestinian Authority. For instance, Youssef Al-Shayeb from al-Ghad (based in Jordan) was detained on March 25 by order of the PA’s Attorney-General for publishing an expose on alleged corruption in the PA’s diplomatic mission in France, in which he claimed that the mission’s Deputy Ambassador, Safwat Ibraghit, asked Palestinian students to spy on Muslim groups in France and relay information to Palestinian and foreign intelligence services. Palestinian National Fund Director Dr. Ramzi Khouri, PA Foreign Minister Riyad al- Maliki and others were also reportedly involved in this scandal. In addition to being detained and questioned, al-Shayeb is also being sued for $6 million by al-Maliki and other PA officials.
Al- Shayeb is by no means the only one – on March 28, Esmat Abdel Khaleq was detained and held in solitary confinement for posting remarks about Abbas on Facebook which were considered “inciting” and “defamatory”, writing “Down with the traitor Abbas,” calling him a “fascist” and calling for dismantling of the PA. Meanwhile, journalist Rami Samara from Wafa (the official Palestinian news agency) was detained in January for Facebook posts criticising the PA.
The Jerusalem Post editorial rightfully criticised the media, NGOs and donor states for largely ignoring such violations of human rights and basic freedoms, where people are arrested for criticising the government on Facebook. To their credit, Human Rights Watch (HRW) did publish a little-noted news item on their website (“Palestinian Authority/Israel: Escalating Assault on Free Expression,” 3/4/2012) in which they urged the PA to avoid criminal prosecution of al-Shayeb, and release the Palestinians detained without charge for criticising the PA on Facebook. HRW have also pointed out the problematic phrasing of Palestinian laws and regulations in regards to free press (based on the Jordanian Penal Code), which facilitate imposing limitations and taking legal action against journalists. The organisation also mentioned some additional recent arrests – including Tareq Khamis from Zaman press, for alleged connection with Khaleq’s case, and Jamal Hlaihel, for yet more comments made on Facebook.
HRW even criticised Hamas authorities in Gaza – who make little pretence of allowing media freedom – for recent arrests and allegations of torture of journalists. They allege that in February al-Shoa’lah editor Saher al-Aqraa was subjected to “cruel and inhuman treatment and torture in detention” after being accused of collaboration with the Palestinian Authority, and that a group of Palestinian and Swedish journalists (associated with Wafa news agency) was arrested by Hamas’ al-Qassam Brigades and the Internal Security Agency for entering an unmarked “security zone.”
HRW performed a positive service in calling on the PA and Hamas in Gaza to allow their residents to exercise free expression while attempting to document the pattern of human rights violations perpetrated against journalists in both areas.
However, as is characteristic of HRW, it could not condemn Palestinian actions without throwing Israel into the mix – so the organisation tryed to draw parallels between the arrests of journalists for criticising the PA or the torture of journalists by Hamas in Gaza, and the lawful closure of a media institute at al-Quds University in the old city of Jerusalem. This had nothing to do with the content they published – it was for their alleged ties and sponsorship by the PA, which is not allowed to operate politically in Jerusalem under the provisions of the Oslo Accord. It was the equivalent of closing a pirate radio station which did not have the proper permits to broadcast on the frequency they were using, or closing a newspaper office set up in a residential home in violation of zoning laws – it has nothing to do with freedom of the press.
Sadly, such distortion of facts and the attempts to parallel real repression of free speech in Gaza and the West Bank with legal action against a media institute which violated laws unrelated to the content of their speech undermined the important message about media freedom HRW was interested to promote.