Journalists detained for speaking out against Palestinian Authority

Two journalists were arrested by Palestinian Authority officials on 31 January after making comments against Mahmoud Abbas and the PLO.

Rami Samara, an editor with local news agency Wafa and radio station Ajyal, told news agency AFP that he was detained by plainclothes security agents at the Muqata, Abbas’ headquarters, following a comment that he had posted on Facebook. Underneath an article which blamed Israel rather than the PA itself for the failure of the Palestinian Executive Committee to meet in Amman last month, he wrote: “seriously, members of the central committee of the sole representative of the Palestinian people, was this decision worth the meeting in the Muqata [compound] and the heating and the electricity and the tea and coffee.”

Samara told AFP that he was held for four hours and shown “about 100 pages of comments I made on Facebook, mostly criticising the Palestinian Authority and the PLO.” Questioned by agents from both Military and General Intelligence agencies, he reported that they told him he would be released on agreeing to sign a confession that he had been the organiser of an anti-government demonstration of a group within the PLO that is critical of Abbas. Despite refusing, Samara was eventually released later that day.

In a second case, Yousef Shayeb, a journalist with the Jordanian newspaper al-Ghad was reported being detained by Palestinian intelligence officials for eight hours. Officials questioned him regarding a series of stories that he had written about corruption within the Palestinian diplomatic mission to France. According to Shayeb, those interrogating him demanded that he reveal his sources, which he refused to do. Government spokesman Ghassan Khatib told AFP that Shayeb was questioned in connection with potential libel charges, in order that security services could decide whether to file charges against him.

Both journalists are members of the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate, a majority Fatah organisation, meaning that the political crossover between the organisation and the Palestinian Authority itself resulted in limited action being taken against the arrests by the head of the PJS, Dr Abdel Nasser Najjar.

Although a press release by the PJS stated that it would “spare no effort to defend journalists,” with Dr Najjar quoted as saying that it is “the responsibility of the Association to follow up the issues of journalists,” it is unclear what if any steps were taken by the PJS to protect the reporters concerned. Compared to the outcry in October 2010 when Hamas occupied the offices of the PJS in Hamas-controlled Gaza, it would seem that there is little political gain to be had in reacting to the arrests in a manner that was more than cosmetic. Attempts to contact Wafa and the PJS directly to discuss the cases were also ignored.

Despite local media outlets having an obvious vested interest in press freedom, coverage of the arrests was extremely limited. Wafa, the agency where Samara works, published a very short report which was also republished by the Palestinian News Network, citing its source very clearly. Bigger news agencies such as Ma’an, who have reported extensively in the past week of journalists’ detained by Israeli forces in Nablus and Bethlehem, were silent about Samara and Shayeb.

In Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index published last month, the Palestinian Territories ranked 153rd out of 179 countries, dropping three places lower than last year. Although the drop was due to the Hamas takeover of the PJS Gaza office, both parts of the Territories examined as one received a lower placement than Afghanistan or Iraq.

Ruth Michaelson is a freelance journalist based in Ramallah. Follow her on Twitter @_Ms_R