It may be the season in Palestine but we are a long way from last year’s Arab Spring uprisings. In an apparent crackdown on criticism of government ministers and administrators, by the Palestinian Authority, three journalists and an academic have been arrested by government authorities over the past fortnight.
"Last week was a black week for a free press in Palestine," said union leader Omar Nazzel, deputy chairman of the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate. "Journalists have been arrested and held for several hours in the past but this is the first time since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority that journalists have been sentenced by the court."
Several of the arrests resulted from comments made on Facebook, and Nazzel fears Palestine’s political leaders have failed to learn the lessons from the popular uprisings that took place across the Middle East and northern Africa last year.
"The Palestinian Authority is monitoring what happened across the Arab world last year and they believe Facebook and other internet sites will possibly influence views in Palestinian society," he said. "Instead of trying to change themselves, they are acting like other regimes and going the wrong way to try to stop the people talking about corruption and other political issues."
The Palestinian Authority government has denied it is trying to curtail free speech and independent reporting -- attributing the arrests to the independent decisions of presiding judges.
In the most high-profile case, Yusuf al-Shayeb was detained, on March 26, without charge by the Palestinian security agency, the General Intelligence Service, following the publication of an article in the Jordanian daily al-Ghad
. The article alleged corruption, spying and nepotism within the Palestinian diplomatic mission to France. He was released on $US14,000 bail on April 2.
Al-Shayeb, a writer with al-Ghad
for eight years, has since been sacked. His article cited anonymous sources revealing the surveillance of Islamic associations in France, with information passed to Palestinian and foreign security agencies. It is alleged the deputy ambassador to France, Safwat Ibraghit, was behind the surveillance program and that the ambassador to France, Hael al-Fahoum, Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki, and the head of the Palestinian National Fund, Ramzi Khouri, were all complicit in the operation, along with cases of corruption and nepotism.
Those named brought a defamation complaint against al-Shayeb, seeking $US6 million in compensation, under Articles 189 and 191 of the Jordanian Penal Code, elements of which still operate in the Palestinian territories. Article 191 of the code allows for imprisonment of up to two years for "slandering" of government officials.
Spokesperson for the Palestinian government, Ghassan Khatib, said he felt the arrest of al-Shayeb was unnecessary but ultimately the decision of the judge. "This is something the government can do nothing about," he claimed. "It was the decision of the judge and she is independent in her decision."
Khatib maintained that journalists’ right to freedom of expression and to the protection of sources under Palestinian law. "The various branches of the PA must show respect to that," he said, referring to the magistrate’s decision to arrest al-Shayeb.
Using the same articles in the Jordanian Penal Code, two Palestinian journalists and an academic have been arrested for comments, critical of the Palestinian Authority, made on Facebook.
Ismat Abdul-Khaleq, a 37-year-old university lecturer in journalism at al-Quds University, was arrested on March 28 for criticising Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in posts to her Facebook page. The posts are understood to have read: "Yes to bringing down the traitor Mahmoud Abbas", "Abbas is the fascist" and "Abbas has held a party of immorality and shame at the blood of martyrs".
Tareq Khamis, a journalist with Zaman Press, was arrested on April 1 and questioned following comments made on Facebook in relation to Abdul-Khaleq’s detention. He later told news website Electronic Intifada
that he inquisitors were more interested in a previous story he had written about Palestinian youth groups critical of the PA. On April 2, Jamal Hlaihel was also arrested for critical comments posted to Facebook.
Human Rights Watch’s Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson condemned the arrests in a statement on the organisation’s website, saying: "these arrests send a chilling message about exercising the right to free expression".
Ghassan Khatib described the incidents as "not representative" and said the Palestinian government refuted any suggestion it was trying to create an atmosphere in which journalists were afraid to investigate corruption and abuses by the PA or to make critical comments of government officials.
"My impression, from experience, is that Palestinian journalists are so professional and brave that they will not be intimidated," he said. "They have been harassed and intimidated by Israeli forces and I trust they will continue their brave reporting.
Khatib feels the Palestinian public is a sound barrier to any governmental developments perceived as authoritarian. "In exceptional cases such as this you see very strong public reaction," he said with reference to recent protests by journalist’s associations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "The public is guarding rights, freedom of expression and freedom of the media."
But the feeling among the population of the occupied territories is one of growing frustration with their political leaders. An increased concern, on the political leadership’s part, of prominent users of social media is merely an indication of broader public dissatisfaction with the state of affairs within the Palestinian territories. Adding to the frustrations are the economic imposition of Israel’s occupation, the prolonged stagnation of the "peace process" between Israel and Palestine, perceived corruption and nepotism within the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority and Hamas’ religious authoritarianism in Gaza. Additionally, the long-overdue national elections, and the failure of Palestine’s two major political parties, Fatah and Hamas, to reach a unity agreement for a government bringing coherence to governance in the Palestinian territories, are breeding disquiet and a feeling that certain members of the political elite are too cosy with the status quo
Omar Nazzel sees the frustrations of the Palestinian populations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as being accentuated by the current economic hardships within the occupied territories.
"When the government and the economic situation is going well, nobody cares about corruption," he said. "But now the economic situation is hard and all the people start to look at it."
Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories adds further restraints to a free press. These events coincided with the arrest of a further two employees of Al-Quds University, by Israeli authorities, on April 2, during the launch of a new website hosted by the university’s Institute for Modern Media. The police actions were undertaken on the basis that the university’s activities, based in East Jerusalem, were organised by the Palestinian Authority -- which is prohibited by Israel from operating within such areas -- although they are recognised internationally as belonging to the Palestinians. Adel Rweished, a university administrator, and Mohanad Izheman, a security guard, were detained and later released.
The Israeli arrests came less than five weeks after raids on two television studios in Ramallah, Al-Quds Educational TV and Watan TV, on February 29. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of production and broadcast equipment was reported to have been seized during the raids and has not been returned.
Meanwhile, in Hamas-ruled Gaza, the situation appears equally restrictive. In February, Hamas security personnel raided the home of Saher al-Aqraa, editor of al-Shoa’lah
news website. Human Rights Watch report that al-Aqraa was subjected to torture and inhumane treatment during interrogations. Despite not being charged with any crime, it is understood he was accused of working with the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.
One year after the banner of the Arab Spring was lifted proudly in popular uprisings across the Middle East, against the corruption and brutality of national regimes, there is much progress to be made to allow the Palestinian people free expression and a sniff of self-determination in the direction of their future.
*Follow Nigel O'Connor on Twitter: @nigel_oconnor