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Press freedom situation continues to deteriorate in "Hamastan"

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders firmly condemns the constant harassment of Palestinian journalists in the Gaza Strip by the Hamas paramilitary Executive Force. The press freedom organisation is also concerned about the Islamist party's intention to enforce a press law dating back to 1995 that will enable it to control the media even more closely.

"The situation of journalists in the Gaza Strip has got much worse since the Hamas takeover," Reporters Without Borders said. "The party's leaders went out of their way in July [2007] to get British journalist Alan Johnston released but, for local journalists, the members of the Executive Force are press freedom enemies and do not hesitate to use violence."

The organisation added: "We are all the more concerned that Hamas has decided to reinforce its control over the media by applying a law adopted by Yasser Arafat in 1995, which led to the Palestinian Authority seizing and suspending newspapers and arresting journalists in order to bring them into line. We would not want to see this recur in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip."

Six journalists were arrested when Hamas' armed wing intervened to disperse a pro-Fatah demonstration in Gaza City on 24 August. Cameraman Jamal Abou Nahl of Al-Arabiya TV, Agence France-Presse photographers Mohammed Abed and Mohammed Al-Bada, cameraman Khaled Balbel of the agency Zoom, cameraman Mostapha Al-Bayed of the satellite TV station Russia Today and Mohammed Dahmane of the news agency Mayadine were all held for several hours at the Saraya, the Hamas headquarters in Gaza City. Equipment was seized and their video and audio tapes were destroyed.

"Members of the Executive Force wanted to force us to publicly say on Al-Aqsa TV [the Hamas television station] that no journalist was mistreated during the demonstration, but we refused," Balbel told Reporters Without Borders. The six men were released after dozens of journalists gathered outside in protest against their arrests.

On the evening of 25 August, around 15 armed members of the Executive Force tried in vain to arrest Shaker Abou el-Oun, an Agence France-Presse correspondent who is also president of the Gaza branch of the Union of Palestinian Journalists. Alerted by phone, colleagues came and formed a human chain at the entrance to his home to prevent the gunmen from entering. They left only after a Hamas leader intervened and said it was a "misunderstanding." The day before, El-Oun had been very critical of Hamas' harassment of the media (see IFEX alert of 27 August 2007).

On 27 August, Hamas leaders announced their intention of applying the 1995 press law, under which journalists can go to prison for six months and newspapers can be closed if they publish reports liable to "jeopardize national unity or incite crime, hatred, division or sectarian dissension." Journalists can also be prosecuted for negative reports about "the police and security forces and their weaponry."

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