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Palestinians discuss free expression and publishing crimes at World Press Freedom Day event

MADA organised a round table meeting on 25 April 2013 to discuss
MADA organised a round table meeting on 25 April 2013 to discuss "Freedom of expression and publishing crimes" in advance of World Press Freedom Day.

Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA)

The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) organised a round table meeting on 25 April 2013 to discuss “Freedom of expression and publishing crimes”, in the context of the center's activities on the occasion of the approaching World Press Freedom Day on May 3rd.

The meeting was held at Albeireh Municipality hall, with the participation of a number of legal advisors, human rights activists, journalists, and representatives of civil society organizations interested in freedom of expression.

The general director of MADA Mousa Rimawi opened the meeting by presenting the reality and status of media freedoms in Palestine, stating that the occupation forces (IOF) violate freedom of expression continually through escalated violations. During the last year the IOF committed 164 violations - the most tragic was the killing of 3 journalists. Rimawi stressed that the occupation violations are continuing up until this moment.

Rimawi also said in his speech: “The violations of the occupation must not make us forget the Palestinian violations, especially since the division. Despite the decline over the past year in the number of violations, there are still some practices that concern us and the rest of civil society institutions such as controlling the Internet and social media sites, and the prosecution of journalists and bloggers for expressing their opinions in their writings and comments.” Rimawi added that such practices not only limit freedom of expression, but also promote self-censorship and a fearful environment.

Rimawi also stated that the legal environment of media is not appropriate for journalism, with the absence of the right to Access to Information Law (which MADA drafted recently), and that the printing and publishing law needs amendment. In addition there is a need for the enactment of both the audio-visual law and the Information Council Higher law. And there is a need to approve the Palestinian Penal Code, as the current law allows for the imprisonment of journalists and citizens for expressing their opinions, unlike the global trend.

For his part, former President of the Judicial Council Judge Issa Abu Sharar stated that the Printing and Publishing Law gives absolute freedom of the press, but the fact is that the media must differentiate between the rights of expression and what affects the dignity of others. But he stressed that laws must be applied as they are written and not on the basis of estimation or assumption, as happened with the case of journalist Mamdouh Hamamrah.

Abu Sharar stressed that all the provisions of contempt and slander crimes are misdemeanors, so we must release the journalist with a guarantee, and there is no need to remand journalists regarding freedom of expression and publishing cases.

Abu Sharar added, "We have the excesses by the media in Palestine, as there is no capacity in the hearts of the Palestinian officials to bear criticism or the excesses that occur."

With regard to journalists' news sources, Abu Sharar stated that they should be disclosed only by the decision of the competent court, which manages the case.

Chief Prosecutor Ahmad Borak stated that there must be work to improve laws related to the work of the media. Borak added, "We the public prosecutors have a moral obligation to respect freedom of expression and must not imprison journalists, and I hope that this becomes a legal obligation."

Borak stressed that Palestine now has international dues in regards to liberties with the most important being article 19 of the Palestinian Basic Law. Borak differed in his view with Abu Sharar and stated that since a presidential decree was issued to enforce the Jordanian Penal Code in Palestine, the word "king" translates automatically into the head of the Palestinian Authority, and therefore may be used as such.

Barak also explained that in the crimes of libel and slander the claim must be personal. But anyone who is a public character does not need to claim personally, because the criticism was not directed to him personally, but for his work and his performance in this public institution.

Independent Commission for Human Rights researcher Yaser Alawni stated that the Commission noted a sharp rise in complaints from officials of their differences with journalists, and expressed his concern about the arbitrary nature of the law using the justification of slander and libel to suppress freedom of expression.

Legal researcher Jihad Harb stated that they must fight to transfer slander and defamation cases to the public prosecutor and not to the executive branch, especially because it falls under the framework of misdemeanor charges. Harb expressed his belief that some officials try to use the law to suppress freedom of expression, since there became international and internal pressure to limit the actions of the security forces against journalists, and he stressed that not only the executive branch but the media also suppress freedom of expression.

Journalist Fathi Barqawi stressed that the status of media freedoms in Palestine is in a much better condition than in other Arab countries.

Journalist Mohamed Abu Arqoub wondered how to get out of the crisis caused by the legal excesses of persons responsible for law enforcement, and wondered about the efforts by the judiciary to consolidate the idea of protecting freedom of opinion and expression at the expense of the aggrieved people through libel and slander.

A member of the Board of Directors of MADA, Majed Arouri, stated that there is a poor understanding of the freedom of opinion and expression in the executive branch and Palestinian society as a whole, and stressed the importance of debates to discuss issues of freedom of opinion and expression, because it helps resonate the subject of freedom of opinion and expression among officials and the community. Arouri called on civil society organisations to take a greater role in promoting a culture of freedom of opinion.

A member of the Secretariat at the Journalists' Syndicate, Montaser Hamdan, stated that the union has noticed often the excesses of professional journalists, and stressed that the adherence to professional standards is the first lifeline for journalists. Hamdan assured the audience that this is not an excuse to commit abuses and prosecute journalists.

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