In a move that has angered Palestinian human rights organizations and journalists, the Palestinian Authority (PA) on April 17 approved a new law that restricts freedom of expression and the media. The move is seen by Palestinians in the context of the PA's effort to silence its critics and suppress public freedoms. Palestinian journalists call it a declaration of war on the media.
Ironically, the approval of the new law, known as the Palestinian Cyber Crime Law, comes in the wake of the PA and its supporters continuing falsely to accuse Israel of targeting Palestinian journalists. The accusations refer to the death of two journalists in the Gaza Strip who were shot in recent weeks by Israeli soldiers during violent clashes between Palestinian protesters and the Israel Defense Forces.
The two journalists, Yasser Murtaja and Ahmed Abu Hussein, were not killed because of their work. They were not shot by Israeli troops because of an article they wrote or a photo they took. The two were killed because they chose to be in an area near the border with Israel where thousands of Palestinians were hurling rocks and firebombs at the soldiers. In fact, it later transpired that one of the journalists, Murtaja, was actually a member of the Hamas terror group.
The PA and its leaders and spokesmen have since been waging a smear campaign against Israel, accusing it of deliberately targeting Palestinian journalists in a bid to "stop them from reporting the truth." This is nothing but another blood libel designed to delegitimize Israel and demonize Jews.
There is no Israeli policy of targeting journalists and there never was one. Not Palestinian journalists and not foreign journalists. If such a policy existed, scores of journalists would have been killed or injured while covering the Hamas-sponsored mass demonstrations near the border with Israel during the past six weeks. If such a policy existed, scores of journalists would have been killed or injured while covering clashes between IDF soldiers and Palestinian protesters in the West Bank in recent weeks and months.
Journalists who willingly and knowingly enter a combat zone cannot complain if they are hurt. A cameraman who stands behind stone-throwers has no right to claim that he or she was deliberately targeted by the Israeli army or police.
It is true that a handful of Palestinian "journalists" have been arrested by the Israeli authorities in the West Bank in the past few years. However, their arrests had nothing to do with their work in the field of journalism. Instead, they were arrested for their affiliation with Palestinian terror groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Here, it is worth noting that the PA security forces in the West Bank have been arresting journalists -- not only because of their writings, but also because of their affiliation with Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups.
In recent months, at least five journalists have been arrested by the PA: Islam Salem, Mustafa Sabri, Hazem Nasser, Ala' Ribi, and Emad Abu Awwad. Another 8 journalists were summoned for interrogation because of their postings on social media: Anan Ejawi, Rami Samarah, Ayat Abdullah, Mada Shalbak, Naela Khalil, Musa'b Kafisheh, Rula Sarhan, and Tareq Abu Zeid.
Palestinian journalists protest in Nablus to demand that the Palestinian Authority release their colleague, Tareq Abu Zeid, after an earlier arrest. (Image source: Al Resalah)
So, when Israel arrests a journalist for security-related offenses, the PA rushes to condemn Israel for allegedly cracking down on freedom of the media. However, when PA security forces arrest and intimidate Palestinian journalists, mainly because of their writings, no one seems to care. Not even those international human rights groups that have been denouncing Israel following the deaths of the two journalists during the riots along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel.
For decades now, Israel has been known as a paradise for the foreign media. The vast majority of Middle East correspondents prefer to have their homes and offices in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv than in Ramallah, Gaza, Cairo, Amman, Damascus or Baghdad. That is because the correspondents and their families feel safer in Israel than they do in any Arab country. They know that in Israel, no masked man will knock on their door at two in the morning to shoot them or arrest them because of their work. They know that in Israel, no one will kidnap them or behead them or rape them in a public square. They know that such crimes take place in Arab and Islamic countries, but not in Israel.
Under the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, there is no such thing as freedom of the media. Not for Palestinian journalists and not for the foreign media. All journalists are expected to report positively on the Palestinians. They are also expected to report only on issues that reflect negatively on Israel.
Any journalist who defies the Palestinian narrative faces sanctions, including boycotts and threats. Many Palestinian journalists even envy their Israeli colleagues for the wide margin of freedom of expression they enjoy inside Israel. The Palestinian reporters see how their Israeli colleagues are free to criticize Israeli leaders and government officials -- something that is unthinkable under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
As if that were not enough, Palestinian journalists are in for a new "treat" from their leaders in Ramallah, as the new Palestinian Cyber Crime Law goes into effect.
If until now Palestinian journalists were arrested and interrogated in an arbitrary manner, now they will be targeted within the framework of the new law. This means that journalists and Palestinian human rights organizations will not be able to say that the crackdown on public freedoms and freedom of the media is illegal.
Away from the world's notice, the PA government in Ramallah approved the controversial Cyber Crime Law as part of its ongoing effort to tighten its grip on the media and deter Palestinians from voicing any form of criticism against President Mahmoud Abbas and his associates. This is a deliberate assault on journalists and political rivals of the PA leadership. It is coming from the same PA leadership that is accusing Israel of deliberately targeting journalists.
Article 4 of the new law states:
"any person who has intentionally and unlawfully accessed any electronic system or network, has abused any information or part thereof, or has exceeded the authorized entry shall be liable to either imprisonment, a fine, or a combination of the two. If the aforementioned crime is committed against any official statement by the government, the culprit shall be punished by imprisonment for a period of at least six months, or by a fine."
Article 20 goes even further:
"Anyone who creates or manages a website that aims to publish news that endangers the integrity of the Palestinian state, the public order or the internal security for the State, shall be punished by imprisonment for a period of at least one year, by a fine, or by a combination of both punishments".
The law clearly specifies what awaits Palestinians who dare to express their views through social media. Since most journalists today use social media platforms to air their views and post photos, the two articles of the law are seen as being aimed directly against them. The PA leadership's goal is to ensure that leaders are immune from journalistic critique.
When the PA threatens to punish Palestinian journalists for "endangering the integrity of the Palestinian state," it is actually referring to the integrity and reputation of its leaders. Yet, a Palestinian state does not exist in the West Bank. There is only a Palestinian Authority, which is a one-man show called Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas has surrounded himself with yes-men who do not challenge his decisions or question his policies. Now, Abbas and his associates, through this new law, want to make sure that they are also surrounded by Palestinian journalists who serve as their mouthpiece.
The silence of the international community toward this new form of intimidation and harassment of Palestinian journalists at the hands of their leaders is both hypocritical and disturbing. It is hypocritical because international human rights organizations continue to turn a blind eye to wrongdoing on the Palestinian side while being obsessed with Israel. It is disturbing because the silence of the international community and human rights groups allows Abbas and his allies to get away with assaults on public freedoms and move forward towards creating a dictatorial regime for the Palestinians -- one funded with American and European taxpayers' money.
The last thing the Middle East needs is another repressive Arab regime. It is also the last thing the Palestinians want. With the passing of the new law, Palestinian journalists can only continue to envy their Israeli colleagues.
Meanwhile, one wonders about the silence of the foreign correspondents based in Israel in the face of the severe restrictions and threats made by the PA against their Palestinian colleagues. For these foreign correspondents, Abbas and Hamas can harass and incarcerate any Palestinian journalist anytime, but it is a crime for Israel to take measures against those trying to harm its security. So it goes in the Palestinians' International Wonderland.
Bassam Tawil is a Muslim based in the Middle East.