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Palestinian journalist pardoned, debate on legislative reform sparked

The photo that landed Palestinian journalist Mamdouh Hamamreh in jail. Caption says:
The photo that landed Palestinian journalist Mamdouh Hamamreh in jail. Caption says: "alike in every way"

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Palestinian journalist Mamdouh Hamamrah, who was sentenced by an appeals court in the West Bank on 28 March 2013 to one year in prison for insulting President Mahmoud Abbas, has been pardoned.

Hamamrah is the Bethlehem correspondent of the Palestinian satellite TV station Al-Quds. Intelligence officials arrested him on 19 October 2012 because a composite image that compared Abbas to an evil character from a Syrian historical television drama was posted with a comment on his personal Facebook page, prompting a complaint from the public prosecutor's office.

In a statement condemning the sentence, the Palestinian Centre for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) explained that Hamamrah did not post the picture, share the picture, or post any comments on it.

Mamdouh Al Hamamreh, a journalist for Al-Quds TV station, spent 53 days in jail before being pardoned
Mamdouh Al Hamamreh, a journalist for Al-Quds TV station, spent 53 days in jail before being pardoned

Facebook/Mamdouh Hamamreh

In spite of the pardon, Hamamrah had spent 53 days in a Bethlehem prison, so his case prompted rights groups to highlight the need for legislative reform.

“We welcome this pardon but the fact remains that it depended on the president's will,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said. “A Palestinian citizen can still be jailed for insulting President Abbas. We call for reform of the law so that news providers and ordinary citizens can no longer be sentenced to imprisonment on charges of this kind.”

MADA's lawyer Sana A'rinke stated that even if Hamamrah had posted the image, the original sentence of one year in prison would have been illegal and unfair. The judgement was made under Jordanian Penal Code of 1960, which is enforced in the West Bank but does not include an article relating to online publishing restrictions, and, more importantly, specifies a prohibition against any citizen offending the king – not a president.

Hamamrah was first arrested by the Palestinian security forces shortly after the photo appeared on Facebook in 2010. He was freed on bail until he was re-arrested on 28 March 2013 following the court's decision, which was widely criticized by Palestinian journalists. According to RSF, protest sit-ins were staged that day in Ramallah and Gaza in reaction to the appeal court's decision to impose an actual jail sentence, rather than a suspended one.

Shortly thereafter, Abbas's office issued a statement saying the president had been "disturbed" when he learned about the court ruling. Abbas's advisor, Hassan al-Ouri, added that the public prosecutor was in charge of the complaint against Hamamrah, and that Abbas had not been involved.

The general director of MADA, Mousa Rimawi, welcomed the pardon but seized the opportunity to call on the president “to issue a presidential decree that would cancel articles relating to the imprisonment of journalists under the Jordanian Penal Code enforced in the West Bank, and to replace the imprisonment of journalists when prosecuted on issues of free expression with a fine instead.”

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