Journalist Yousef Al Shayeb, detained by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank town of Ramallah, was released on bail on Monday “pending investigation” after eight days of incarceration. Al Shayeb began a hunger strike “in the name of press freedom” three days in, after a court renewed his detention order for a further 15 days. His release is seen as being due to the success of his fellow journalists in publicising the case, especially following fresh efforts by the Attorney General to prevent his release on Tuesday.
Al Shayeb is accused of “slander and defamation” and was held while the authorities “searched for evidence” to support the charges brought against him. These accusations came from two government officials: the Foreign Minister Riyad Malki and the head of the Palestinian Diplomatic Mission to France. A conviction for defamation of a public official could result in Al Shayeb imprisonment for two years, and the damages sought by the Minister and the Head of the Mission total 6 million USD.
It is the circumstances surrounding Al Shayeb’s incarceration that present increasingly damning evidence against the Palestinian Authority, who have targeted Al Shayeb and his employer, the Jordanian Al Ghad newspaper, following a story he published in January. The article in question “accused Palestinian Authority deputy ambassador Safwat Ibraghit in Paris of recruiting Arab students to spy on Islamic groups in France and abroad, and sharing that information with both Palestinian and foreign intelligence agencies,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), who proclaimed their outrage in a report on Wednesday. The article also accused the Director of the Palestinian National Fund Abu Nabil, the head of the Palestinian Diplomatic Mission Hael al-Fahoum of corruptly promoting Ibraghit to his post, and the Foreign Minister Riyad Malki of covering up the entire scandal.
According to the CPJ as well as local media sources, the Palestinian Authority also pressured Al Ghad, resulting in them firing Al Shayeb shortly after he was first questioned in January; he had worked for the paper for a decade. Al Shayeb has also come under pressure to reveal his sources, but has maintained his journalistic right to protect them following his initial arrest and questioning in January. The Palestinian Centre for Development and Media Freedoms has stressed that under Palestinian law, no journalist is required to reveal their sources unless the subject is considered a matter “of national security” or they are required to do so by a court order.
In an effort to correct the negative reports written about them following Al Shayeb’s arrest and hunger strike, the Palestinian Authority have made themselves look unfamiliar with the concept of a free press. The Foreign Minister told local news agency Ma’an that journalists had reacted “emotionally” to the arrest of their colleague, and that they should be willing to hear both sides of the story, as then they would understand who the true victims were. He also maintained that Al Shayeb knowingly published “falsehoods” in the report, but failed to explain why this would be grounds for arrest and detention. On Wednesday, the cabinet issued a communiqué following its weekly meeting which stated it “continues to protect journalists’ rights to work freely”, yet also asked journalists “to maintain professional standards, particularly on public affairs issues.”
Such attitudes seem likely to further increase public dissatisfaction with the body. In a pole on the Ma’an website, an overwhelming majority of 84.9 per cent of responses responded to the question “PA detention of journalists for libel accusation is primarily a failure of?” with “The PA’s ability to tolerate criticism.” Al Shayeb’s arrest also came at the same time as the authority announced, without irony, that it would be issuing a press freedom award. Many journalists as well as the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate have subsequently said that they will boycott the award in light of recent events.
Ruth Michaelson is a freelance journalist based in Ramallah. Follow her on Twitter @_Ms_R