The shrinking space for journalistic rights and freedoms in Palestine

On 28 June 2021, Palestinian journalists in Ramallah denounce the attacks suffered by their colleagues during coverage of the recent political demonstrations in the West Bank. (AFP/Abbas Momani)

“It was a Saturday, and the street was full of demonstrators. We were filming the events from a corner,” recalls Shatha Hammad, a 28-year-old Palestinian journalist. “One of the men snatched my phone from me whilst I was filming and broke it. Fifteen minutes later, a policeman threw a grenade in my direction and it exploded at my feet, leaving a two centimetre wound below my eye. Still, I went back to cover the demonstrations on Sunday, wearing a blue jacket marked ‘PRESS’ like the others this time, but we were still attacked. I received several blows and many of my colleagues had to flee for safety.”

Hammad was covering the 27 June demonstrations against the death of Palestinian political activist Nizar Banat during his arrest on 24 June. The violent attacks on demonstrators and journalists shocked public opinion in Palestine, especially when five women journalists, including Hammad, gave public testimonies at a press conference organised by the Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq.

One of the journalists, Saja Al-Alami, described how she had to hide in the toilets of a restaurant while members of the Palestinian security forces searched for her, to arrest her. During her testimony, Hammad was not able to hold back the tears as she spoke: “We continue to be affected by the threats. We are afraid, because we have no protection.” Hammad later told Equal Times that “[her] family has been receiving calls threatening to attack her again. It is a humiliation for my family and for me as a journalist and as a woman.”

The complexity of the context in which journalists have to operate in the Palestinian territories is well-known, especially in view of the rights violations linked to the Israeli military occupation. According to the Journalist Support Committee in Palestine, the occupation forces committed 476 violations against Palestinian journalists in 2020, ranging from arrests and physical assaults to raids on editorial offices and the confiscation of professional equipment. According to the same committee, the number of violations committed by the Israeli army rose to 255 during May 2021, including the bombing on 15 May, of a building housing the offices of several media organisations in Gaza and the death of journalist Yusef Abu Hussein when his home was bombed by the Israeli air force on 19 May.

Within Palestinian society itself, however, journalists are also experiencing a narrowing of the space for their rights and freedoms.

Beyond the physical attacks, the loss of journalistic rights and freedoms includes a significant degradation in the protection of their rights at work. “The first week of January 2021 had gone by and I still hadn’t received a call from the radio station’s management,” says Lina Abu Halawah, a 27-year-old Palestinian journalist. “The New Year’s holidays were over and I still hadn’t been contacted. I later found out that other colleagues had gone back to work. That’s how I found out I’d been fired.”

Abu Halawah is one of around 20 journalists and employees who were dismissed by the Ajyal radio station in early 2021. As a well-known presenter at the Ramallah-based radio station, her sacking made headlines, as did that of her colleague, Firas Al Tawil, a well-known figure on the radio’s morning show. “Ajyal was where I grew up, professionally, as a journalist. I worked there for 13 years, since the very start of my career,” recalls Al Tawil. “Ajyal was also taking its first steps at the time and the radio also grew with me.”

The dismissals of the journalists from Ajyal came two months after a wave of dismissals at the Nablus-based An-Najah radio station, which led to a heated online discussion about working conditions for Palestinian journalists.

Seven years’ work without a contract

“When the pandemic broke out in Palestine, in March 2020, Ajyal’s management convened the employees to tell us about the changes being made,” says Al Tawil. “First they told us that we would receive half of our salaries for a few months, and that the other half would be paid later, and we accepted.” Abu Halawah adds: “It’s true, we were paid half of our salaries for March, April and May 2020. But after that, the management told us we would be working part-time from then on, for half the pay.”

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Meanwhile, the public had no idea of what was happening inside Ajyal or the conditions for employees at what is the most listened to independent news radio station in the Palestinian territories and one of the most prestigious media organisations in Palestine. “The relationship between us, the employees, and the management was based on personal trust rather than formal ties of employment,” explains Abu Halawah. “During the seven years I worked there, for example, I never signed an employment contract.”

Hossam Ezzedine, a member of the leadership of the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate (PJS), explains that “there are ever fewer opportunities to work as a journalist in Palestine. That’s why many journalists agree to work without a contract and in precarious conditions.” This precarity is exacerbated by increasingly heavy restrictions on editorial freedoms, as Monir Zaarour, policy and programmes director for the Arab World and Middle East at the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), points out: “In Palestine, there are media outlets with links to political forces. There are the private media outlets that are struggling to survive in a challenging economic context, with social media networks becoming increasingly popular spaces for advertising. Then there are the foreign media outlets with offices in Palestine.”

As Naila Khalil, bureau chief of the London-based news website The New Arab, explains, “the Palestinian Authority often views foreign news outlets with mistrust”.

In November 2015, The New Arab published an opinion piece, in one of its supplements, about the corruption cases and political arrests made by the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Ministry of Information asked the public prosecutor to shut down the local bureau of the London-based newspaper.

The ministry’s director, Mahmoud Khalifa, later told Reuters that the reason for the decision was that the office did not have a licence. “The real reason was the article,” insists Khalil. “Al Jazeera published a copy of the Ministry of Information’s message to the prosecutor at the time, in which it requested the closure of our bureau, indicating the article in question as the reason for its request.”

The legal proceedings filed by the Palestinian Ministry of Interior against The New Arab are still underway. The news outlet is asking for the reopening of its Ramallah desk, while the Interior Ministry continues to argue that it does not have a licence. In the meantime, the limits on journalistic freedoms have only increased.

In 2017, the Palestinian government passed legislation on cybercrime, by decree. The decree gives the public prosecutor the power to arrest individuals and shut down media institutions. It has been used to block dozens of online news websites, such as the Quds News Network, Ultra Palestine and the Palestinian newspaper Arab48, as well as sites linked to the political opposition. The law has also been used to arrest numerous journalists. “Since then, journalists have had to be more careful about what they write, not only in their capacity as journalists, but also as individuals, on social media platforms,” says Khalil.

The law was denounced by human rights organisations in Palestine, such as Al-Haq, and criticised by international organisations, such as Amnesty International. In response to this pressure and after lengthy discussions with civil society organisations, the Palestinian government amended the law in 2018, removing the articles of the law that directly violated freedom of expression. The amended law nonetheless retained the articles that allow the public prosecutor to order the blocking of websites within 24 hours. The sites blocked before the law was amended continue to be blocked.

Political ties

Zaarour of the IFJ says that “one of the limits on editorial freedom in the Arab world is the media’s lack of independence from political forces”. For journalist Khalil, this is clearly the case in Palestine: “Most of the major news media outlets in Palestine are linked to politicians, who use them in their favour.”

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This was what lay behind the dismissal of Ayat Abdallah and many of her colleagues from An-Najah radio. “In 2018, the management asked us to use our personal Facebook and Twitter accounts to support a powerful politician who had just been the target of a physical attack,” she says. “Some of us didn’t, and we were threatened with dismissal and then fired.”

The case of Abdallah and her colleagues at An-Najah was the subject of controversy for several weeks and the journalists’ union became involved. “An-Najah filed proceedings against Ayat Abdallah accusing her of defamation,” says Ezzedine of the PJS. “So the union assigned a lawyer and the radio finally withdrew its complaint.” But even the union knows its limits. “The union works in very complex conditions,” says Ezzedine. “The leadership is also made up of groupings with political affiliations, and this places constraints on our ability to act.”

This inability to act and the attacks on several Palestinian journalists at the end of June have sparked outrage within the profession. The union publicly condemned the attacks and even called on journalists to boycott the Palestinian government’s communiqués and statements in protest.

According to Hammad, however, “the union did not help me file a complaint against those who attacked me. They didn’t even agree to register my complaint, and that’s why my colleagues and I went to human rights organisations.”

In the days following the attacks on journalists, including Shatha Hammad, several Palestinian journalists used social media to share photos of their press cards, which they had cut up in protest at the lack of protection.

Limits on organising

Journalists are also faced with constraints on union organising in the workplace, as seen by those working at Ajyal, to quote just one example. “Towards the end of the year, the management asked us to resign and to start the New Year with new agreements, while making it clear that some of us would not be rehired,” explains Al Tawil. “So we started negotiations on our termination rights.”

But after a few rounds of bargaining, “the directors decided that they would no longer discuss with us as a group, but individually”, explains Abu Halawah. “They told us that they don’t tolerate groupings within the institution.”

Individual negotiations are commonplace in Palestine. The choices they lead to are often the same: “In December, the management offered me three options – to accept only 90 per cent of my termination rights with immediate effect, to receive my full rights in the form of cheques spread over 48 months, or to go to court,” says Al Tawil. Abu Halawah was presented with the same ultimatum: “They reminded me that going to court would take years, and that it could cost a lot of money,” she says. Al Tawil concludes: “We were forced to choose, without really being given a choice.”

In spite of these conditions, according to Zaarour, “aside from the violations of the Israeli occupation, Palestinian journalists are in one of the most favourable positions in the Middle East”. He also points out that the PJS “is one of the most independent in the Arab world”. Khalil nevertheless insists on the fact that “Palestinian journalists lack job security, editorial freedom and social protection”. But what journalists in Palestine lack most, she says, “is solidarity within the profession. We don’t have a collective body that depends on us alone to discuss our conditions and find solutions.”

For Ezzedine, the union should be that space for solidarity and journalists should make use of it: “It is true that the union’s conditions are not ideal, but they are not going to change if everyone stays away,” he says. “We need more solidarity and more involvement too.” This article has been translated from French.

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