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Escalating assault on free expression

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Jerusalem, April 3, 2012 - The Palestinian Authority (PA) should not criminally prosecute Yusuf al-Shayeb, a journalist detained without charge on March 26, 2012, and released on April 2, Human Rights Watch said today. He is being investigated for libeling PA officials whom he accused of spying and corruption. The PA should also release Palestinians detained without charge for criticizing the PA on their Facebook pages.

Israeli authorities should not prosecute Adel Rweished, an administrator at Al Quds University whom Israeli police detained on April 2, 2012 during a raid on the university's media center in Jerusalem's old city. Police broke up an event marking the launch of a new website, and also arrested a security guard. They released both men but summoned them for further questioning. The arrests were based on an Israeli order stating that the Palestinian Authority had organized the event, but Israeli officials provided no evidence to support that claim, which university officials denied. Israel does not allow the Palestinian Authority to operate politically in Jerusalem. It was the second Israeli raid on media programs at Al Quds University since February 29.

“Both the Palestinian Authority and Israel should stop harassing and arresting journalists,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “These attacks send a chilling message about exercising the right to free expression.”

The arrests violate international free speech standards, Human Rights Watch said. Hamas authorities in Gaza have also carried out arrests of journalists in recent weeks in violation of international free speech standards, including allegedly torturing the editor of a news website and arresting other journalists for their presence in an unmarked “security zone.”

On March 28, the Ramallah court of first instance ordered al-Shayeb's detention for 15 days, to enable police to investigate claims that he committed slander and defamation. Al-Shayeb has refused Palestinian prosecutors' demands to identify his sources, his lawyer told Human Rights Watch. Whether or not the statements in al-Shayeb's article were truthful or libelous, criminalization of the libeling of government officials violates free speech norms, Human Rights Watch said.

On January 30, al-Ghad al-'Urdani, a Jordanian newspaper, published an article in which al-Shayeb accused the Palestinian diplomatic mission's deputy ambassador in Paris, Safwat Ibraghit, of corruption and spying on Muslim associations abroad and passing the information to Palestinian and foreign security agencies. The article also accused Hael al-Fahoum, the Palestinian ambassador in Paris, Ramzi Khoury, president of the Palestinian National Fund, and Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki, of complicity with Ibraghit and nepotism.

“He says the interrogators are pressuring him to reveal his sources, but he has refused,” Dahoud Darawi, al-Shayeb's lawyer, told Human Rights Watch.

Darawi said that the General Intelligence Service, a Palestinian Authority security agency, had detained al-Shayeb shortly after the article was published and questioned him about it for seven hours. Darawi said Palestinian police in Ramallah summoned al-Shayeb again on March 26, after al-Malki and al-Fahoum complained to the Palestinian attorney general. Al-Shayeb has since been detained in Ramallah's central prison, said Darawi and Yassir al-Salah, a lawyer who advises the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate.

The authorities are investigating al-Shayeb, 37, for allegedly violating Articles 189 and 191 of the Jordanian Penal Code, which is part of the penal legislation the Palestinian Authority applies in the West Bank. Article 191 of the Penal Code provides criminal penalties of up to two years in prison for “slandering” government officials. Al-Fahoum, Ibraghit, and Khoury have filed a complaint seeking US $6 million in damages against al-Shayeb for libel in print media, as defined by Article 189.

On March 28 al-Shayeb went on a hunger strike to protest his detention, Darawi said, and the Journalists Syndicate held a sit-in to protest the arrest.

Al-Shayeb's wife, Badi'a, said that he worked for al-Ghad for eight years, and that the newspaper fired him after the complaint was filed. Human Rights Watch spoke with her by phone on March 29, while she was trying to visit him in prison. “I haven't been allowed to visit him yet,” she said. “The guards are claiming that the prison is being renovated.” Since his arrest, she had only been able to see him in court. Al-Shayeb has not been arrested before, she said.

On April 2, the first instance court ordered al-Shayeb's release on bail of 10, 000 Jordanian dinars (US$ 14,050). The attorney general appealed the order, but al-Shayeb was released that evening, al-Salah told Human Rights Watch.

The Palestinian Press and Publications Law (1995) provides, in article 4(d), that journalists have the right to protect confidential sources of information unless a court decides that revealing the source is needed to maintain security, prevent crime, or promote the interests of justice. Article 7 of the law prohibits publishing material that contradicts the principles of freedom, national responsibility, human rights, and the respect of truth. Article 37 prohibits publishing information that harms national unity.

These prohibitions are so vague that they could chill freedom of the press and violate an accused person's right to defend him or herself, as it is impossible to know what types of information, if published, would constitute a crime, Human Rights Watch said. Because the UN has not recognized it as a state, the Palestinian Authority has not formally signed human rights treaties, but its leaders have repeatedly pledged to uphold the right to freedom of expression.

The UN Human Rights Committee has stated that the criminalization of defamation should “only be countenanced in the most serious of cases and imprisonment is never an appropriate penalty.” The Committee has stated that, “The mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties,” and that, “All public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism.”

In the second case, Palestinian Authority police arrested Abdul-Khaleq, 37, a university lecturer in journalism at Al Quds University in Abu Dis, near Jerusalem, according to Al-Haq, a Palestinian rights group. Police were investigating Abdul-Khaleq on suspicion of incitement and defamation for posting comments on her Facebook page that allegedly insulted the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, and for calling for the dissolution of the PA, the Al-Haq director, Shawan Jabarin, told Human Rights Watch. Abdul-Khaleq has not been charged, and is being detained in a PA jail in Beitunia, near Ramallah, in the West Bank.

Palestinian Authority police arrested Tareq Khamis, a reporter for Zaman press, in al-Bireh, near Ramallah, on April 1, in connection to Abdul-Khaleq's case, according to al-Salah, the Journalists' Syndicate adviser, and a report by the Palestinian Ma'an news agency. He was later released. On April 2, PA police arrested Jamal Hlaihel, for comments critical of the PA that he posted on his Facebook page, al-Saleh said.

Israeli authorities have also targeted journalists and university media programs recently. At around 1 p.m. on April 2, Israeli police closed down Al Quds University's Institute of Modern Media, in the old city of Jerusalem, and arrested the two university employees.

The university institute was holding an event for news media to initiate a new website, Hona al-Quds (Jerusalem is Here), focusing on the city. Rasha Alami, who works with the institute, told Human Rights Watch that plain-clothes police “had entered and were chatting in Arabic with the guests for 10 or 15 minutes before suddenly they closed the door and locked some of us inside.” Uniformed riot police were stationed outside.

The police presented an order to close the institute, signed by Israel's minister for internal security, on the basis that the event was prohibited because it had been organized by the Palestinian Authority, which Israel does not allow to operate politically in Jerusalem. The closure order was valid for one day, Alawi said.

The police then arrested Rweished, an administrative director, “because he identified himself to police as the one responsible for the event,” Alami said. Police also arrested a security guard, Mohanad Izheman. Izheman was released but was told to report to a police station on April 3. Police detained and questioned Rweished at the “Moskobiya” police station until 9 p.m., Alami said, and was summoned again on April 3. It was not clear whether he would be charged with any offense. Alami and Lucy Nusseibeh, a university director, said the event was organized independently by the university, which registered in Israel as an independent non-profit organization in 1996. The “Hona al-Quds” program had been in the testing phase for three months, and the university had advertised the opening event in advance, but Israel did not communicate any objection or allege that the PA was involved in the program, they said. To Human Rights Watch's knowledge the PA has not claimed any responsibility for the event.

On February 29, Israeli forces raided the studios of Al Quds Educational TV and Watan TV in Ramallah, in the West Bank. Israeli officials said that the television station broadcasts were interfering with aviation frequencies, but Palestinian officials said they had never received any complaints about the frequencies, which have operated for years. Moamar Orabi, station director at Watan TV, told Human Rights Watch that Israeli forces confiscated 10 years' worth of archives, including financial records, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment. Israeli forces also confiscated equipment from Al Quds Educational TV, which, among other programs, produces an Arabic version of the children's television show “Sesame Street.”

Donors such as the US Agency for International Development (USAID) have supported these stations and vetted them repeatedly, according to public-domain USAID documents. Israel has not returned any of the confiscated equipment or other materials, employees of the two stations told Human Rights Watch.

In Gaza Hamas security forces subjected Saher al-Aqraa', the editor of the al Shoa'lah news website, to cruel and inhuman treatment and torture in detention, according to MADA, an independent Palestinian press rights group. On February 17, Internal Security agency officials arrested him at his home in Gaza, and confiscated his computers, cameras, and various documents, MADA reported.

He was taken to the Internal Security compound in Gaza City, where officials questioned him for three days and accused him of collaborating with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. When he told his interrogators that one of his legs had been broken, they began to beat that leg. He was not charged with any wrongdoing. In July 2010, Hamas authorities had arbitrarily prevented al-Aqraa' from traveling from Gaza to Egypt.

On March 28, members of Hamas's armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, and Internal Security agency officers arrested a Palestinian cameraman, Sami Abu Salem, of the Wafa news agency, two Swedish journalists, and their driver, in the Tuffah neighborhood east of Gaza City, the journalists told Human Rights Watch. One of the detained journalists, Cecilia Uddan, a radio reporter, said that they had been working on a story about the impact of Israeli border closures on Gaza's agricultural sector.

Security forces arrived on two motorcycles and a white van and arrested them for their presence in a “security zone,” which was not marked, took them briefly to a military site, and then to the Internal Security compound in Gaza City, where they were detained for an hour without being charged. Internal security officials questioned them and confiscated and checked their cameras, identity cards, and computers before returning them.

“The Palestinian Authority and Hamas should stop arresting journalists merely for exercising their freedom of expression, and Israel should immediately return the materials it arbitrarily confiscated to the Watan and Al Quds Educational television stations and stop harassing them,” Whitson said.
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