It is not easy for an Arab journalist to criticize his or her leaders. If there is one thing Arab dictators cannot tolerate, it is criticism, especially when it comes from an Arab journalist, columnist or political opponent.
For many years, Palestinians were hoping that one day they would enjoy freedom of expression under the leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA). But more than two decades after the establishment of the PA, Palestinians have learned that democracy and freedom of speech are still far from being introduced to their society.
Since then, Palestinians have also learned that their leaders are "untouchable" and above criticism. Both Mahmoud Abbas and his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, have even taught Palestinians that "insulting" their president is a crime and an act of treason.
Both Mahmoud Abbas (right) and his predecessor, Yasser Arafat (left) have taught Palestinians that "insulting" their president is a crime and an act of treason. Pictured above: A Fatah propaganda poster featuring Abbas and Arafat. The Arabic text reads "Bearer of the trust" on top.
During the past two decades, several Palestinians who dared to criticize Abbas or Arafat have been punished in different ways.
The latest victim of this campaign against critics is Jihad al-Khazen, a prominent Lebanese journalist and columnist who recently wrote on article about the need for the "failed and corrupt" Palestinian Authority leadership to retire.
Al-Khazen, a veteran journalist with the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, is now under attack by the PA. The goal: deterrence of free speech.
In the Looking Glass land of the Palestinian Authority, criticism of Abbas is classed as "insult to the president" and has landed critics behind bars -- or worse.
In 2013, a Palestinian journalist working for the al-Quds TV channel in Bethlehem, Mamdouh Hamamreh, was sentenced to one year in prison for posting a picture on Facebook that was deemed insulting to President Abbas. Abbas was depicted in the image as a fictional character who collaborated with French colonial forces in Syria. Abbas later pardoned the journalist.
That same year, a Palestinian Authority court sentenced Anas Saad Awwad, from the West Bank village of Awarta, to a year in prison for posting on Facebook a photoshopped picture of Abbas wearing a Real Madrid shirt.
Also in 2013, PA security forces detained a Palestinian-Canadian investor, Mohamed al-Sabawi, 68, on charges of insulting Abbas. Al-Sabawi was president of the Board of Directors of Ahlia Insurance Group, which employs hundreds of Palestinians in the West Bank. He was detained for two weeks after he publicly called for the removal of Abbas from power.
The businessman's son, Khaled, who is from Ontario, Canada, said that the detention of his father showed that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's plan to bring $4 billion in private investment to the Palestinian territories was "nonsense." He added:
"Come and invest in the Palestinian areas, but if you don't bribe their corrupt officials, the Palestinian Authority will arrest you. This is a desperate political arrest by an undemocratic Palestinian Authority president who has no credibility amongst his people. I think my father hurt President Abbas's feelings."
In the past few years, Palestinian officials who have also dared to criticize Abbas, or were accused of insulting him, paid a heavy price. The list of officials who were punished for raising their voices against their president includes Mohamed Dahlan, Yasser Abed Rabbo and Salam Fayyad.
Mohamed Dahlan, an elected Fatah member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a former PA security commander in the Gaza Strip, was expelled from Fatah in 2011 at the request of Abbas. Dahlan was also forced to flee the West Bank after Abbas sent his security forces to raid the Dahlan's Ramallah residence and arrest some of his supporters. Dahlan has since found refuge in the United Arab Emirates.
Until recently, Yasser Abed Rabbo served as Secretary-General of the PLO and was considered one of Abbas's closest aides. Last year, however, Abbas removed him from his job after he reportedly criticized the president in closed meetings.
Salam Fayyad, the former Palestinian Authority prime minister, was also punished for allegedly criticizing Abbas. Last year, the PA froze Fayyad's bank account and accused him of money laundering. The decision came after Fayyad received a large sum from the United Arab Emirates for a non-governmental organization that he, Fayyad, heads. Under pressure from the international community and some Arab countries, Abbas was later forced to rescind the decision.
Now Jihad al-Khazen has joined the list of critics who are being targeted by Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. Al-Khazen's crime is that he wrote an article lambasting Abbas and the veteran leadership of the PA.
The controversial article was published earlier this month in the Al-Hayat daily.
The article quotes an unnamed senior Gulf official saying that the time has come for Abbas and the entire Palestinian Authority leadership to retire. "We don't trust them," the Gulf official is quoted as saying, referring to the PA leadership. Although the Gulf official is not mentioned by name, Abbas and his aides in Ramallah say they believe the man is Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi (the emirate that hosts and funds Abbas's arch-enemy, Mohammed Dahlan).
Commenting on Abbas's decision to freeze the bank account of Fayyad, the senior Gulf official is quoted in the article as having said:
"Do you really believe that the United Arab Emirates would choose to launder money though the Palestinian territories? The Palestinian prosecutor-general later admitted that Abu Mazen [Abbas] had ordered him to fabricate the charge. The United Arab Emirates is now demanding a public apology from Abbas. We have suspended all aid to the Palestinian Authority."
Al-Khazen said that the Gulf official also spoke with him about Abbas and his wife and children. "But I have decided not to publish these things," he added. Al-Khazen said he spent nearly two hours talking to the Gulf official whom he quotes in the article.
The response from the Palestinian Authority was swift. In Ramallah, calling for the retirement of the president and the PA leadership in an influential Arab newspaper is a deadly serious matter. The 77-year-old al-Khazen can consider himself fortunate that he does not live in the fair city of Ramallah with the PA leadership.
The first attack on al-Khazen was framed in the traditional Palestinian theory of a Zionist conspiracy. Published by the official Palestinian Authority news agency Wafa, which is controlled by Abbas loyalists, the article referred to the al-Khazen's charges as "vulgarities," and attempted to establish a link between Israeli "incitement" against the PA and the article in Al-Hayat.
Next we read of the beleaguered defensive posture. Abbas's agency notes that the article aired at a time when the Palestinian Authority is "facing the Zionist project on all fronts." Finally, we get to the heart of the matter: dictatorial censorship. As in, where is it?
"Does a respected and responsible newspaper have the right to allow such filthy words to appear on its pages?" the Wafa agency asks. "And does Jihad al-Khazen or anyone else have the right to say whatever they want without any control? And do they have the right to insult people or Arab leaders without being held accountable?"
Abbas's ruling Fatah faction has also been recruited to defend its leader's reputation. Again, the faction resorted to the famous tactic of linking any legitimate criticism of Abbas to Israel. In a statement, Fatah accused the columnist of "serving the state of occupation [Israel] and those who are working towards undermining President Abbas, Fatah, the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people." The statement added: "This is a service for the [Israeli] government of Binyamin Netanyahu, which is interested in stepping up its organized campaign against President Abbas."
In the eyes -- and words -- of Abbas and his cronies, anyone who opens his mouth in criticism of the Palestinian president -- from a Gulf leader to a respected Arab columnist -- is a mouthpiece for the Zionist project.
Deterrence is the name of this game. And prison is probably the best place some would-be whistleblowers can hope for. This is not what Palestinians were hoping for when the Oslo Accords were signed with Israel, paving the way for the creation of the Palestinian Authority. Many Palestinians were hoping back then that, under the PA, they would enjoy public freedoms like the ones their neighbors in Israel have. Sadly, most Palestinians are no longer living under the illusion that their current leaders would ever bring them democracy and freedom of speech.
The case of al-Khazen, who is facing a campaign of intimidation and insults, serves as a reminder to Palestinians that their leaders are infallible and untouchable, and that the liberty they had hoped for is still far, far away.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist, is based in Jerusalem.