Hajer Harb, a courageous Palestinian investigative journalist and cancer survivor, is standing trial in the Gaza Strip for the "crime" of exposing corruption in Hamas-run ministries and institutions. (Image source: Hager Press video screenshot)
Hamas, as part of its crackdown on freedom of the media, has imposed yet another restriction on the work of journalists in the Gaza Strip. The Hamas measure has left many Palestinian journalists worried about their ability to report on what is happening in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Foreign journalists, for their part, have yet to respond to the latest assault on public freedoms.
What exactly did Hamas do to anger the Palestinian journalists? Earlier this week, the Hamas-controlled Government Press Office issued a directive in which it said that, as of April 1, journalists will not be permitted to conduct interviews or enter government institutions in the Gaza Strip unless they have obtained a "press card" issued by the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Information.
This new directive means that any journalist who does not receive a "press card" from Hamas will not be able to operate freely and independently in the Gaza Strip.
Needless to say, Hamas is not about to give credentials to any journalist who is not affiliated with the Islamist movement and its ideology. Also, Hamas is not going to give its "press cards" to any journalist who dares to criticize its rule over the Gaza Strip or express a different opinion. Worse, by granting itself the right to issue "press cards," Hamas can now decide who is a journalist and who is not. Basically, Hamas's message to journalists is, "If you're not with us, go find yourself another job."
The new measure is Hamas's way of controlling the story. Hamas clearly wants to make sure that the journalists who work in the Gaza Strip report only on issues that make the movement and its leaders look good in the eyes of Palestinians and the international community.
It is not that the stories coming out of the Gaza Strip in recent years haven't been sympathetic to Hamas. Ever since Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, in fact, its leaders and security forces have maintained a tight grip on the local media to make sure that Palestinian journalists living there "toe the line." The result: most of the stories emerging from the Gaza Strip in the past 12 years have largely ignored Hamas's failure to improve the living conditions of its constituents.
By controlling the media, Hamas has been able to send a message to the world that the misery of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip can be laid squarely at the feel of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority (PA). A few foreign journalists who briefly visited the Gaza Strip and filed reports that Hamas did not like have been quietly told that they are no longer welcome to return to the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave. Palestinian journalists who nevertheless challenged Hamas by reporting on sensitive issues, such as financial and administrative corruption in the Gaza Strip, are still suffering from the long arm of Hamas.
Consider, for example, the plight of female investigative journalist Hajer Harb, who is currently standing trial before a court in the Gaza Strip for exposing corruption in Hamas-run ministries and institutions. Harb, a cancer survivor, has been repeatedly summoned for interrogation by Hamas security forces for her role in reporting on corruption in medical and housing institutions. Earlier this week, the court again postponed Harb's trial until February 26. She is accused of "failing to display objectivity, fairness and accuracy" in her reporting. Instead of honoring the young and dedicated journalist for her courage, Hamas has decided to punish her. Instead of interrogating and prosecuting the corrupt officials whose identities were mentioned in her reporting, Harb is the one who is now standing trial for telling the truth.
Her lawyer, Baker al-Turkumani, described the charges against her as "flimsy." The charges, he said, are an "assault on the freedom of the media and expression, which are protected by the law. The law and justice are the journalist's weapon against corruption. The law cannot be used to limit the work of a journalist or freedom of expression."
The accusation that Harb had failed to demonstrate objectivity and accuracy in her journalistic work is both disingenuous and laughable. It is disingenuous because it is coming from Hamas -- a group for whom the terms objectivity and accuracy are wholly inimical. It is laughable because it allows Hamas to set the standards for objectivity and accuracy.
When, one wonders, did Hamas received the right to preach to the media about "objectivity" and "accuracy"? For Hamas, objectivity in the media means that journalists shut their mouths about their leaders and government officials. For Hamas, "accuracy" means that a journalist working in the Gaza Strip will show Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the worst possible light -- regardless of the facts.
Back to the Hamas's intention to issue its own press cards to journalists working in the Gaza Strip: the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, a body dominated by Abbas loyalists, condemned the Hamas decision as "illegal." Tahseen al-Astal, the deputy chairman of the syndicate, complained that the Hamas decision was a "clear violation of the journalists' access to information." He called on all journalists to boycott any news related to Hamas in protest against the decision.
While this syndicate's criticism of Hamas is completely justified, it is important to note that it rarely cares to protest assaults on Palestinian journalists living under the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. By directing its criticism against Hamas only, the syndicate is displaying an obvious double standard.
Since the beginning of this year, the Palestinian Authority security forces have arrested 10 Palestinian journalists in the West Bank for their "negative" reporting and alleged criticism of Abbas and other senior Palestinian figures. In the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, Hamas summoned for interrogation only four.
The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate regularly chooses totally to ignore the plight of the journalists arrested by the Palestinian Authority security forces. The only evils the Syndicate sees are those that can be linked to Hamas or Israel. That is because its heads and senior staff are affiliated with Abbas's Fatah faction. Now this syndicate, which is condemning the latest Hamas measure, has called on Palestinian officials and journalists to boycott Israeli reporters and media organizations.
Like Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, with the help of its associates in the syndicate, is apparently seeking to control the news and narrative to make sure that journalists direct their criticism only against Israel. Like Hamas, the Palestinian Authority has been relatively successful in its effort to limit the flow of information from areas under its control. A Palestinian journalist living in Ramallah will think at least a dozen times before he or she writes or says a word that could rile Abbas or one of his senior officials.
The latest Hamas decision targeting journalists will undoubtedly make it harder for journalists to operate in the Gaza Strip. Many have already been facing a campaign of intimidation and threats by Hamas. The new decision will now force many of the Palestinian journalists there to change their profession: unless they have been cleared by Hamas's security forces, they will no longer have access to sources.
The continued Palestinian Authority crackdown on Palestinian journalists in the West Bank has become every journalist's nightmare; many now practice strict self-censorship for fear of being punished by Abbas and his security agencies. In the absence of a free and independent media under the Palestinian Authority, several Palestinian journalists have been forced to seek work in Israeli, Western or Arab media organizations.
It now remains to be seen whether Western journalists and media outlets will voice any concern at all over the ongoing attempts by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to silence and intimidate Palestinian journalists. If the foreign journalists continue to ignore the situation of their Palestinian colleagues, the day will soon come when they themselves will fall victim to the unacceptable and unprofessional measures imposed by Palestinian leaders against the media.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem, is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at Gatestone Institute.