Last May, when the media was concentrated upon the collective hunger strike in Israeli jails organised by Marwan Barghouti, another hunger strike initiated by Hamza Zablah went largely unnoticed. Zablah, a former prisoner for Hebron, was been detained by the Palestinian Authority security services and despite an order being signed for his release, his detention was not terminated.
This year, PA violations and repression against Palestinians has escalated, notably against Palestinian journalists affiliated to media agencies which harbour different politics. Last Sunday, seven Palestinian journalists embarked upon a hunger strike in protest against their detention by the PA. According to Palestinian media, the journalists were detained for violating the recently approved cybercrime legislation which, among other offences, stipulates prosecution against Palestinians if the individual commits a crime “against a Palestinian party or against Palestinian interests.”
Article 20 of the legislation holds accountable “anyone who creates or manages a website or an information technology platform that aims to publish news that would endanger the integrity of the Palestinian state, the public order or the internal and external security of the state.” Issam Abdin, from the Palestinian NGO Al-Haq, declared the law as “destroying the freedom of journalism work in Palestine.”
Like any other legislation, the used terminology is well suited for the creation of legal loopholes. The escalating criticism over PA violations committed against journalists and freedom of expression this year have likely triggered this presidential decree, as events unfolded in the occupied West Bank which were met with the obstruction of media freedoms by the PA security services, and with varying degrees of violence. The aim is to prevent any possible criticism of, or dissent against, the PA – events and reports unfolding throughout the year indicate that the intention of PA leader Mahmoud Abbas runs deeper than a political divide between Fatah and Hamas.
As Palestinians realise their freedom is being throttled by Israel as the colonial power, and the PA as its extension, particularly in the occupied West Bank, criticism from within continues to arise. Previous grievances, particularly with regard to security coordination with Israel, which the PA suspended belatedly and about which conflicting reports have emerged, can no longer be suppressed. The alternative, which the PA has chosen, is to obstruct journalism and attempt to enforce an authoritarian rule, thus adding an additional burden upon Palestinians. To achieve this, the PA’s decision to target journalists indicates awareness of the link between media and the people. Attempting to sever this power should elicit concern, particularly in light of a timeframe that has increasingly pressured the PA for answers.
In March, when Palestinian journalists protested against the PA crackdown on journalists in the aftermath of Basel Al-Araj’s murder by Israeli security forces, the PA’s security services once again used force to disrupt the gathering which was organised by the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate and the Palestinian Journalists’ Club. Cameras and recording equipment were also damaged or confiscated by the security services.
In addition, the Palestinian Centre for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) declared it was calling for a commission of inquiry after Palestinian journalist Sami Al-Sa’ee gave testimony of the torture he experienced at the hands of the PA’s intelligence services, allegedly for “inciting sectarian strife” on Facebook.
In June the PA blocked 29 Palestinian news sites in succession and without notice, according to MADA, followed by the arrests of journalists working with the outlets. Last month, Jihad Barakat, a journalist working with Palestine TV, was detained by Palestinian security forces after photographing Israeli soldiers stopping Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah at a checkpoint.
The two frameworks emerge when it comes to the dissemination of information in the occupied West Bank. Primarily, the discrepancies between highlighting one hunger strike and attempting to obscure the other, as well as the overall lack of media attention when hunger strikes by Palestinians are directed as a form of protest against the PA.
During the Operation Freedom and Dignity hunger strike, the PA encouraged Palestinians to take to the streets without providing cover for the protestors, thus effectively handing the Israeli forces an opportunity to continue its crackdown on civilians who are resisting Israeli violations daily. Journalists committed to their profession imparted timely reports about the collective mobilisation and, when an agreement was reached, the PA attempted to capitalise upon the limelight by lauding the struggle of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
While the journalists’ hunger strike was on a much smaller scale than that organised by Barghouti, it is pertinent to note that had these individuals not been released and thus their hunger strike terminated, it is most likely that less outrage would have been expressed. The blocking of news outlets and increasing Palestinian repression represent a blatant double standard. Dependency upon journalism to detail the hunger strike in May was essential. In the wake of the crackdown upon journalists in the occupied West Bank, reporting about measures taken by journalists to protest PA repression would have been lacking. This results in a situation where only the PA can determine what the media is allowed to disseminate to the public. Such tactics were recently displayed over the situation at Al-Aqsa. Abbas’s decision to suspend security coordination was a news item widely circulated. Beneath this belated veneer, the PA continued its crackdown upon Palestinian journalists unhindered.
Abbas, whose power is dependent upon Israel and the international community, can cite “political divisions” as the purported reason behind the crackdown. Hamas has also detained a Palestinian journalist in Gaza, Fouad Jaradah, and the PA has been asking for his release. In June alone, MADA documented 41 press violations in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, with the PA being responsible for 34 violations out of the total. In light of Abbas's intent to crush criticism in both areas by withdrawing financial support and shutting down free speech respectively, the notion of pressuring Hamas will likely turn into a convenient spectacle. The purported reason for cracking down on journalists in the occupied West Bank will enable the PA to stifle dissent by referencing the political agenda which is also subject to inaccuracies and manipulation, particularly at a time when the PA has contributed to the degeneration of the humanitarian situation of Palestinians in Gaza.
Palestinian society, on the other hand, will be subjected to different levels of fragmentation. The first is Israel’s colonial violence and expansion, which has annihilated Palestinian autonomy. If the PA continues to emulate Israeli tactics in silencing reportage and dissent, Palestinians will be subjected to identical oppression from different entities. Lack of protection for Palestinian journalists from within is tantamount to an extension of the colonial violence inflicted upon Palestinians by Israel. It must not be forgotten that the targeting of journalists is also practiced by Israel – for the PA to maintain shared ambitions with Israel signifies a divide between the leadership and the people that is far more crucial than the political divergences with Hamas, due to the repercussion which the absence of political representation has upon Palestinian society. Eliminating press freedom, which offers the only alternative for Palestinian struggle, is a step in line with Israel’s ambitions and the PA has, through its actions, consented to undertaking an overt role in the strategy.