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'A gradually worsening situation for freedom of the press'

Jan. 2, 2010 11:47 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 10, 2010 9:15 P.M.)
Part seven of a series recounting the findings of South African jurist Richard Goldstone's UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.

Bethlehem – Ma'an – As Israel's assault on Gaza entered its seventh day on 2 January 2009, an Associated Press photographer covering a march in Ramallah in support of the people of the Strip was attacked by members of the Palestinian Authority Military Intelligence.

The photographer said a security official in civilian clothing first shouted at him to stop taking pictures and then he was assaulted by two security agents and taken by force to a nearby building, where he was beaten until he lost consciousness. He was taken initially to the intelligence headquarters but then transferred to a hospital, where he was treated for a broken nose and subsequently released.

The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA), a local journalists' association, began reporting a gradually worsening situation for freedom of the press in the West Bank within the past year. Allegations of violations of press freedom by the PA included reports of arrests of journalists, the closure of media offices, the forcible changing of newspaper and news website headlines, attacks against photographers, some of whom were forced to delete material, and breaking or confiscating photographic equipment.

Richard Goldstone's UN fact-finding mission received several reports of direct or indirect interference in media coverage of demonstrations in the West Bank during the Israeli military operations in Gaza. The team was informed, for example, that the PA censored television programs and newspapers, and that editors were at times informed verbally not to use certain terms or words, or not to broadcast programs that could be considered as incitement against the PA.

The PA's interference with the work of journalists and the media gave rise to the concern that the right to freedom of opinion and expression was interfered with during the military operation, either for Israel's benefit or to stigmatize Hamas, the main political rival of the Fatah-administrated government in Ramallah and the Israeli army's chief military enemy, which the latter considers a terrorist organization.

The UN mission did not say one way or another if PA's crackdowns on the press likely violated international law during the assault, but noted that its members were "concerned about interference with the freedom of the media" throughout the operations. Elsewhere in the report, however, the Goldstone team says the PA's role in stifling dissent could constitute violations of international law.

According to article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right of freedom of expression "includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers," the mission noted in its final report on the Gaza conflict.

But in areas controlled by the PA, particularly Hebron, journalists were assaulted and detained routinely. For instance, on 18 January 2009, a well-known West Bank journalist was reportedly detained overnight at Preventive Security headquarters in Hebron and questioned about an interview he had given to the Al-Quds Satellite Channel in which he was critical of the PA. According to his affidavit, he was then brought before the director of the Preventive Security in Hebron, who he said encouraged him to exercise self-censorship.

But the harassment didn't stop when Israel and Hamas declared unilateral ceasefires on 23 January 2008. Beginning the next day, for example, between 24 and 27 January 2009, four correspondents of Al-Quds were arrested by the Preventive Security Service, the Palestinian General Intelligence and the Palestinian Military Intelligence, and interrogated about their work.

On 22 April 2009, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) noted the arrest by the police in Nablus of a professor of political science at An-Najah University in Nablus who had expressed support for Hamas on a program of the Al-Aqsa television channel when asked to comment on the recent attack against members of the Palestinian Legislative Council by Israeli forces.

On 16 July 2009, caretaker Prime Minister Salam Fayyad issued a decision to close the Qatari network Al-Jazeera's offices in the West Bank, because it broadcast an interview with a senior Fatah leader, who accused senior PA officials of being implicated in the death of former President Arafat. Although the ban was lifted on 18 July, Fayyad announced that he would pursue legal action against the channel "for its continuous incitement against the Palestinian National Authority."

Freedom of assembly: repression of demonstrations

Goldstone's team received information from various sources that demonstrations in support of Gaza were both prevented from taking place and, in some cases, violently repressed.

Security officers reportedly used excessive force during demonstrations on 2 January in Hebron and Ramallah. At both events, protestors suffered injuries after being beaten. Journalists at the Hebron protest were prevented from reporting on the event.

The rights group Al-Haq said a student demonstration at Birzeit on 5 January 2009, which had the stated aim of "showing the occupation forces that Palestinian students reject all aggression against Gaza," saw a heavy deployment of Palestinian Preventive Security, General Intelligence and Military Intelligence services personnel. Many students were reportedly beaten; 50 were injured, 9 of whom were hospitalized. Many were also detained, although most were released later the same day. Khalida Jarrar, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said she had received a call from one of the students asking her to come to the hospital and witness the injuries.

According to Al-Haq, on 26 January, after the end of the Israeli military operations in Gaza, a peaceful sit-in was held near the security forces' headquarters in Hebron against detentions on political grounds. Reportedly, "security forces beat demonstrators, including children, with sticks. Although several demonstrators were injured, security forces impeded access of medical personnel."

The affidavit of one eyewitness states that "Palestinian security officers demanded that we disperse and take our banners down. As demonstrators refused to disband, a group of female security officers started beating them with sticks. The security officers addressed the demonstrators, saying: 'You are Shiite. In Gaza, you shot the legs of Fatah activists. You stole food supplies in Gaza.' Security officers also impeded access to a Palestinian ambulance and prevented medics from evacuating eight injured protestors."

In another serious incident, a former student leader who used to be a well-known political activist informed the Goldstone team that he was tortured by the PA's security forces, apparently because of his protest activities. During the operation in Gaza, he took part in daily protests and was stopped several times by PA security services. He reported that on 2 January 2009, after the Friday midday prayers, he was stopped by security personnel in plain clothes and in uniform in the center of Ramallah. He was pushed into a car carrying the emblem of the PA, where electrical shocks were applied to his body. He was then taken to the Military Intelligence office and interrogated. He alleges that a high-ranking Military Intelligence official threatened him with six months' arrest under the emergency law and warned him not to criticize the PA and to refrain from talking about the resistance, Hamas and Gaza.

Legal analysis and conclusions

The PA, inasmuch as it exercises control over the territory and people, has an obligation to respect and enforce the protection of human rights, the Goldstone report states, noting that both international and domestic law prohibits violations. "The Palestinian National Authority shall work without delay to join regional and international declarations and covenants which protect human rights," according to its de facto constitution, the Palestinian Basic Law, which broadly encompasses the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Goldstone report notes that the PA has likely carried out arbitrary and unlawful arrests and detentions of political opponents in the West Bank, and regularly denied political detainees access to legal representation and basic due process rights, including the right to be brought promptly before a court and charged with a recognizable criminal offence, contrary to the norms contained in the Universal Declaration.

"From the information available to it, the Mission finds that there are features of the repressive measures against actual or perceived Hamas affiliates and supporters in the West Bank that would constitute violations of international law," the Goldstone report concludes. "Furthermore, in efforts to minimize the power and influence of Hamas, the protection and the promotion of human rights have generally been eroded."

"The Mission is concerned that, by failing to take action to put an end to the practices described above, the Palestinian executive and judicial authorities are contributing to the further deterioration of the fundamental rights and freedoms of Palestinians, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.

"It appears from the information the Mission received that the Palestinian Authority's actions against political opponents in the West Bank started in January 2006, intensified between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009, and is continuing until today.

"The Mission considers detentions on political grounds legally unacceptable for several reasons: the arrest and indefinite detention (without trial) by security services and under the military judiciary system are in violation of Palestinian law and international human rights law; and the arrests and detentions are apparently based on political affiliation, which would violate the right not to be arbitrarily detained, the right to a fair trial, and the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of one’s political opinion, which are both part of customary international law.

"Moreover, the reports of torture and other forms of ill-treatment during arrest and detention, and the reports of deaths in detention raise further concerns and warrant proper investigation and accountability."

The report states that it is "a serious concern to the Mission that the normal system of checks and balances between the executive, the legislative and the judiciary branches in the area controlled by the Palestinian Authority appears to be flawed. There seems to be little evidence of a functioning accountability system to counter instances of torture and other forms of abuse of power.

"It is also of serious [concern] that, in the absence of governmental oversight, civil society organizations are receiving threats and being harassed and seeing their operations impeded by administrative obstacles."
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