Palestinian journalists are at the top of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas hit-list in the crackdown occurring alongside preparations for the Palestinian local and municipal elections, scheduled for October 8.
The crackdown is part of an ongoing campaign by the two rival parties to silence critics in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Neither Hamas nor the PA tolerates a free and independent media -- especially on the eve of a crucial election that could have far-reaching political implications in the Palestinian arena.
A Hamas victory in the upcoming elections would be catastrophic for President Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority. Such an electoral outcome would be tantamount to a vote of no-confidence in their policies and performance.
Hamas, for its part, is investing a huge amount of resources in the election campaign, in hopes that the results would further boost its standing among Palestinians. Hamas fears that a defeat would undermine its power in the Gaza Strip and pave the way for its collapse.
As the election campaign heats up, it is clear that Hamas and the PA agree on one thing: intensifying their repressive measures against Palestinian journalists.
This media crackdown is essentially ignored by international human rights organizations. Why? One reason is that when Israel is not involved, assaults on freedom of the media and expression do not interest them.
Some Western journalists and human rights advocates also treat these cases as "internal Palestinian issues" that are of no relevance to international public opinion. A story about a Palestinian journalist who is arrested by Israel is news. A Palestinian journalist incarcerated or threatened by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas is not.
Take, for example, the case of Ahmed Said, a journalist from the Gaza Strip. Last week, he was arrested by Hamas security forces, who also confiscated his personal computer. Said has a radio show on the Sawt Al Sha'ab (Voice of the People) radio station, where Palestinians call in to voice their grievances and talk openly about the problems they are facing under Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip.
Before he was arrested, Said had phoned the spokesman of the Hamas police force, Ayman Al Batnihi, to discuss the recent rise in cases of homicide in the Gaza Strip. According to the journalist, the furious spokesman threatened him: "You are causing us a lot of problems and inciting people. I know how to deal with people. You need to be hanged."
Said is no stranger to this sort of encounter. Last year, he was summoned for investigation for "incitement" against the Gaza City Municipality. The move came after Said used his talk show to talk about the case of street vendor Mohamed Abu Assi, who tried to commit suicide by ingesting poison after Gaza City Municipality inspectors banned him from selling corn at the beach.
Earlier, Hamas arrested another Palestinian journalist, this time for no clear reasons. Mahmoud Abu Awwad, who works for the Palestinian daily Al-Quds, was arrested from his home in the Shati refugee camp on July 25. He too had his personal computer and cellular phone seized.
Abu Awwad's family have since been banned from seeing him in prison. Their son, they were told by Hamas, is being held for "security reasons." Abu Awwad, who has been working for Al-Quds for the past three years, had been reporting mostly about the hardships facing Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. In addition, he was also reporting for the Saudi London-based pan-Arab daily, Asharq Al Awsat.
"Hamas is trying to spread lies to distort the image of my son and justify his arrest," Abu Awwad's father told Al-Quds. "He was arrested because he was critical of the situation in the Gaza Strip and the Hamas government."
Said and Abu Awwad have something in common. Both journalists made the mistake of reporting on the suffering of Palestinians living under Hamas rule. These are not the kind of stories that Hamas wishes to see ahead of the local and municipal elections. Rather, Hamas wants to see printed lies of prosperity.
In the context of its election campaign, Hamas has released a video featuring new houses and neighborhoods, as well as green and clean parks and smiling children. Entitled, "Thank You Hamas," the video seeks to persuade Palestinian voters that life under Hamas is the best thing that could ever happen to them. And that is why they need to help Hamas extend its control from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank through the local and municipal elections. Journalists such as Said and Abu Awwad are spoiling the effect with their inconvenient truths.
Hamas, however, is the proverbial pot calling the kettle black. In the face of its own massive journalistic repression, Hamas dares to criticize the Palestinian Authority for taking similar measures in the West Bank.
Like Hamas, the PA leadership has always been intolerant towards Palestinian (and sometimes non-Palestinian) journalists who dare not toe the party line. Hardly a week passes without hearing about another Palestinian journalist who has been arrested or summoned for investigation by the Palestinian Authority.
In recent weeks, the crackdown on journalists in the West Bank seems to have increased in light of the upcoming elections. The PA too wants to remove from the scene any journalist who might harm its loyalists' chances of winning the local and municipal vote. In this regard, journalists are easy prey.
One of the recent victims is Mohamed Abu Khabisah, who reports on economic issues for the Turkish news agency, Anadolu. Palestinian security officers who raided his home shortly after midnight in Al Bireh, near Ramallah, seized his personal computer and documents before taking him into custody. His wife, Hana, said she too was briefly questioned about her husband's source of income and the nature of his work. Palestinian sources say he was apparently arrested for reporting about financial corruption in the Palestinian Authority's official news agency, Wafa.
Abu Khabisah was the sixth journalist to be arrested by the PA since the decision to hold local and municipal elections was taken two months ago. The other four are Yehya Saleh, Raghid Tabisah Ibrahim Al Abed, Mohamed Abu Jheisheh and Ziad Abu Arrah. In another recent incident, Palestinian security officers raided the home of journalist Musab Kafisheh and seized his personal computer, but did not take him into custody.
It is anxiety that is driving Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in their crackdown on Palestinian journalists. The "security reasons" they tout as an excuse for their repression is a foil for their sense of instability: the less politically secure they feel, the more they strip Palestinian journalists of their ability to report how things really stand in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
So far, so good, from the point of view of Hamas and the PA. Palestinian reporters have been duly deterred. But they are far from the only ones affected.
Foreign journalists rely almost entirely on Palestinian "fixers" and producers for information about what is happening under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Now, local Palestinians will think ten times before they provide their foreign employers with information. Still, it is a puzzle as to why foreign journalists choose not to report about the campaign of intimidation facing their Palestinian colleagues.
One might wonder if the human rights groups neglect these abuses because of their continued obsession with destroying Israel.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist, is based in Jerusalem.