The continued crackdown on public freedoms under the Palestinian Authority has dashed hopes for basic journalistic freedom. Palestinian security forces continue, almost every day, to arrest Palestinians for their purported affiliation with rival political groups. (Image source: iStock)
During a meeting with a Human Rights Watch (HRW) delegation last week, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh promised that no Palestinian will be arrested or prosecuted for exercising his or her freedom of expression.
"Freedom of expression is a sacred right for every citizen," Shtayyeh was quoted as saying. "The government has guaranteed citizens the right to express their opinion through constructive criticism, whether in terms of social media or websites."
Only one day before Shtayyeh assured the HRW delegation that his government would not crack down on Palestinians for expressing their views, however, Palestinian security forces in the West Bank arrested journalist and political activist Thaer al-Fakhoury, 30, for allegedly "vilifying the public authority."
Fakhoury's lawyer, Hijazi Obeido, said that his client had gone on a hunger strike after his incarceration. "The Palestinian Preventive Security Force summoned the journalist for an interview and arrested him immediately after his arrival," Obeido said. "Last Wednesday, he his detention was extended for four days, and not 15 days as requested by the prosecutor-general, due to his health condition."
The lawyer continued that al-Fakhoury, a resident of the West Bank city of Hebron, had remarked during a court hearing that he was being interrogated about a video he allegedly posted on social media. The video reportedly mentions the names of Palestinians who work with the Palestinian security forces, the lawyer added. The journalist has denied any connection to the video.
"The arrest of Thaer al-Fakhoury is a clear violation of the freedom of press work and the Palestinian law that protects the freedom of opinion and expression," Skyline International, a Sweden-based human rights organization that focuses on social media and free speech, tweeted in a statement. "The arrest is a violation of promises made by [Palestinian Authority] Prime Minister Dr. Mohammed Shtayyeh not to arrest any journalist in his region. Skyline International calls for the immediate release of Fakhoury."
The Palestinian Committee for Supporting Journalists also called for the immediate release of al-Fakhoury. The committee said it rejects the arrest of Palestinian journalists because of their work and appealed to Shtayyeh to instruct the judicial authorities to refrain from issuing orders to arrest Palestinians for expressing their opinion or because of their journalistic work.
The Committee revealed that there has been a "marked increase in violations against journalists by the Palestinian security forces in recent months" and said that it has documented more than 104 trespasses by the Palestinian security forces since the beginning of 2019.
The Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHRP) said that its representatives visited al-Fakhoury on July 27 to check on the circumstances of his arrest and the legal measures taken against him.
According to ICHRP, al-Fakhoury called off his hunger strike ahead of the visit. "We hope he will be released as soon as his detention expires on Monday," the group added. "The Hebron Magistrate's Court decided on Thursday 25/7/2019 to extend his detention until next Monday, on charges that the Commission considers related to his journalistic work. The Commission calls upon the security services to stop summoning or arresting journalists for their journalistic work or because of it. We also call on the prosecution and Palestinian courts not to issue arrest warrants against citizens for freedom of expression or press work."
The Palestinian Preventive Security Service, whose officers arrested al-Fakhoury, claimed that he was taken into custody on suspicion that he committed "acts outside the framework of freedom of expression, and not because of his journalistic work."
The security service did not provide details about the alleged "acts" the journalist is said to have committed, but insisted that the proceedings against him were "in accordance with the provisions of the law."
The arrest of al-Fakhoury exemplifies what a promise by the Palestinian prime minister is worth. After the meeting with the HRW delegation in his office in Ramallah, Shtayyeh posted a statement on Twitter in which he said that he "confirmed my government's commitment to/ guarantee of the right of Palestinian citizens to free speech through constructive criticism. In this regard I emphasised that no arrests or persecution will happen."
Palestinian lawyer and human rights activist Muhanad Karajah said that freedom of expression under the Palestinian Authority is not consistent with the minimum of what is guaranteed by Palestinian law. He also accused the Palestinian security forces of failing to carry out court orders to release detainees.
He and other legal experts and human rights activists urged the Palestinian security forces to stop "politically-motivated" arrests and to honor court orders. The "politically motivated" arrests refers to Palestinians who are detained because of their political affiliations or for expressing views deemed critical of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.
Palestinian sources said that despite Shtayyeh's promise, the Palestinian security forces continue, almost every day, to arrest Palestinians for their purported affiliation with rival political groups.
As Shtayyeh was meeting with the HRW delegation, the Palestinian security forces released Yasser Mana', a researcher and expert on Israeli affairs, after 45 days in detention. Mana's family said that the Palestinian security forces had ignored a court order to release their son a week ago. The Palestinian security forces did not say why they arrested the researcher.
A committee representing families of Palestinian political detainees said that at least 118 Palestinians were arrested by various Palestinian security services during June.
The committee pointed out that dozens others have been summoned for interrogation by Shtayyeh's security forces.
Among those targeted by the Palestinian security forces are four journalists, 28 university students, 24 political activists, eight merchants, seven teachers, six engineers, four mosque preachers, 99 former security prisoners (held by Israel) and 91 former "political detainees."
Palestinian journalists and human rights activists were hoping that the Shtayyeh government, which took office only a few months ago, would take a fresh direction regarding human rights and freedom of expression and the media -- turning away from the brutal censorship that has for so long characterized the Palestinian regimes.
Thus far, however, the new Palestinian government has dashed these hopes for basic journalistic freedom.
The continued crackdown on public freedoms under the Palestinian Authority means one of two things – both of which are bad news: either the prime minister has no real control over the Palestinian security forces, or he truly cares nothing about freedom of expression and unimpeded journalistic jurisdiction. Neither scenario bodes well for the future of human rights for Palestinians.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem, is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at Gatestone Institute.