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Gaza government 'committed to press freedom'

March 20, 2011 1:22 P.M. (Updated: March 22, 2011 11:38 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- Gaza's Interior Minister Fathi Hammad said Saturday that the Hamas-led government was committed to press freedom, as journalists reported unprecedented harassment in the coastal enclave.

Hammad met a delegation of reporters and government media officials to discuss complaints after journalists covering pro-unity youth protests were beaten, interrogated and threatened by security forces.

The minister said he issued instructions to security forces to stop raiding media offices unless "under implemented laws," and said he ordered that all seized equipment was to be returned.

Hammad said he had asked the ministry's media office and the government press department to form a delegation and visit journalists who had filed complaints of abuse by security forces. He promised to open swift investigations into all complaints received by the ministry.

Journalists covering demonstrations in Gaza City said Hamas authorities were taking unprecedented measures against press. Cameras and recording equipment have been confiscated and data erased, journalists said.

One reporter, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, told Ma'an that Hamas had threatened her and her son over her participation in the rallies.

She said authorities sent the head of her family a text message saying, "We will kill her the next time she blogs against us or uses Facebook to organize anything ... If you won't do it, we'll do it for you."

She added: "The situation for journalists is really terrible; it's unbelievable. In the past they treated people from Fatah like this but now they are targeting ordinary civilians, including journalists."

On Saturday, about 100 reporters held an impromptu demonstration in front of a Hamas building in Gaza City protesting their treatment hours earlier at a protest that was violently dispersed.

"They even attacked the media's demonstration," a Palestinian journalist said.

Reporters for a Japanese TV station said plainclothes police ransacked their offices in Gaza City on Saturday. They left with footage of officers attacking demonstrators in Gaza City.

In another incident, journalist Manal Hasan was beaten by security forces in Khan Younis.

The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate said Hamas authorities broke into the offices of the Mayadeen media company and attacked Khalid Al-Ashqar, a cameraman for The Associated Press.

A Reuters office was also ransacked, and reporters were told not to take footage of protests. Reuters journalists told Ma'an that police detained two photographers when they refused to hand over their cameras.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement after the meeting between journalists and Hammad that Hamas pledged to prevent a repetition of such actions.

"The Hamas movement condemns aggression against journalists and media in Gaza," it said.

"Aggression against journalists is unacceptable and we are asking the government to set up immediately a committee of inquiry and to stop all aggression against journalists."

On Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of the Palestinian territories to demand that Hamas and Fatah end their bitter enmity.

But despite leaders of the two movements agreeing to meet, the Islamist group has since used force and threatening acts to disperse several follow-up demonstrations in Gaza.

On Saturday, New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch called on Hamas to punish those responsible for violence against protesters.

"It is a dismal reflection on Hamas that it is violently cracking down on peaceful demonstrators calling for political reconciliation," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the organization's Middle East director.

"This is just the latest instance of Hamas assaulting Palestinians' fundamental freedoms," it said, citing testimony of protesters and bystanders who said security forces used batons and cattle-prods, fired into the air and rode motorcycles at people.

"Local authorities aren't fooling anyone by hiding behind thugs who assault protesters," it said. "The Palestinian people deserve leaders, whether Hamas or the Palestinian Authority, who will respect their basic rights."

AFP contributed to this report
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