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Israel’s war against press freedom: The plight of Palestinian journalists

May 7, 2019 at 10:33 am

Thousands of Gazans attend funeral of Palestinian journalist Ahmed Abu Hussein, who was shot by Israeli snipers while covering mass protests near Gaza’s eastern border [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

Imagine your home being raided at pre-dawn hours by gun-wielding soldiers, your laptop and devices which connect you to the world being confiscated, your dignity stripped from you as you are arrested and taken to a prison to undergo “enhanced interrogation techniques”, and then you discover the crime you committed: expressing your opinion and reporting on facts. This is the case with Palestinian journalists who, on World Press Freedom Day 2019, retain their position as some of the most persecuted and repressed reporters in the world.

As of last month, 22 Palestinian journalists, three of whom are women, were reported to be incarcerated in Israeli prisons, violating the conventions of international rights which guarantee the freedom of the press. “The Israeli occupation arrests [Palestinian] journalists for their opinions and then hauls them before military courts using racist laws,” the Journalists Support Committee (JSC) wrote in a statement on the eve of Palestinian Prisoners’ Day in March.

Israel has a long history of arresting journalists reporting on its violations of human rights, and has mastered the art of supressing the freedom of the press, particularly that which comes from Palestinian news organisations and journalists. One method in particular is used by Israeli courts to detain and incarcerate Palestinians for a prolonged period of time: administrative detention. This form of judicial oppression is, effectively, incarceration without trial or any charges, and is exploited regularly by Israel on the allegation that the detainee plans to commit a future offence or is a threat to state security.

READ: 150 Israel violations against journalists in three months

It is a tactic that Israel particularly enjoyed putting into practice throughout the intifadas of the 2000s, and one which does not discriminate between men, women, and even children. According to the Israeli non-governmental human rights organisation B’Tselem, since 2002 there has not been a single month that has gone by without Israel holding at least 100 Palestinians in administrative detention. With 17 of those currently held under the practice being Palestinian journalists, the method is not alien to them, and their terms of release remain as yet unknown. “Israel’s use of administrative detention blatantly violates the restrictions of international law,” says B’Tselem. “Israel carries it out in a highly classified manner that denies detainees the possibility of mounting a proper defence.”

A recent pivotal point in Israel’s persecution of Palestinian journalists cover the Great March of Return which was launched in March 2018. The protests saw Palestinians demanding their right to return to the homes from which their families were forced out to make way for the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and an end for the 12-year siege imposed on the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian medical staff carry away an injured Palestinian during a protest within the "Great March of Return" and "Palestinian Land Day" demonstrations at Israel-Gaza border in Khan Yunis, Gaza on 30 March 2019. [Mustafa Hassona - Anadolu Agency]

Palestinian medical staff carry away an injured Palestinian the ‘Great March of Return’ in Gaza on 30 March 2019 [Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency]

Despite the peaceful nature of the protests, Israeli forces quickly fired tear gas canisters and live ammunition on unarmed protesters, killing over 250 and injuring 29,187. Among those targeted were Palestinian medics and journalists who were clearly identifiable through their distinctive ‘press’ flak jackets. Two journalists – Yaser Murtaja and Ahmed Abu Hussein – were shot and killed by Israeli snipers during the protests. MEMO’s very own journalist, Motasem Dalloul, was shot while covering the protests and our photographer had his camera targeted.

Suppression of truth

It is not only individual journalists who have been persecuted, the repression has also been imposed on entire Palestinian media outlets and news organisation. One example is that of Al-Quds TV. Israel banned the Palestinian broadcaster and news outlet after Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman declared it a terrorist organisation in July 2018. In response, US-based NGO, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), stated that “banning media outlets under the guise of fighting terrorism and protecting national security is a common practice in the authoritarian states from which Israel says it wants to differentiate itself. We call on Israeli Defence Minister Lieberman to lift the ban on Al-Quds TV and allow its journalists to work freely.”

In March this year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Al-Aqsa TV a terrorist organisation, claiming it is used by Hamas to recruit terror groups. Israel has previously bombed the station’s studio in Gaza and forced it to close as a result of  the destruction and the management’s inability to locate the finances necessary to rebuild it.

READ: 19 Palestinian journalists are still imprisoned by Israel

The suppression also spreads far beyond just Palestinian journalists, foreign journalists reporting the reality on the ground are also being choked. Jonathan Cook, a British freelance journalist who lives and works in Nazareth, detailed the legislative limits with regards to licencing and the issue of press control at MEMO’s recent conference “Present Absentees: Palestinian Citizens of Israel & the Nation-State Law last month. “A lot of what he [Netanyahu] was doing is trying to find ways to control the media, and he’s been quite successful, I think, in Israel in many ways. Mainly at the level of the corporate owners, but he assumes that’s going to filter down to the journalists beneath them. So he’s really starting to develop a stranglehold on the internal Israeli media,” Cook explained. Foreign journalists working for large publications in Israel are pressured through the editors to comply with pro-government agendas, “so Israel has been quite effective at limiting journalistic dissent.”

Palestinian Journalists Arrested by Israel - Cartoon [Sarwar Ahmed/MiddleEastMonitor]

Palestinian Journalists Arrested by Israel – Cartoon [Sarwar Ahmed/MiddleEastMonitor]

Cook also outlined the harsh licencing system that Israel imposes on foreign journalists, stating that “there’s a government press office which licenses you, effectively, as a journalist in Israel,” and aside from the military censorship laws, “journalists need to get approval to be working in Israel, and Israel has slowly tightened the rules so that freelance journalists suddenly found they couldn’t get licencing from the government press office and therefore couldn’t work in Israel.” A mixture of these subtle tactics by the Israeli government has, therefore, succeeded in limiting the amount of truth and ground realities that even foreign journalists would potentially report on.

A subtle dictatorship

Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories continue to be one of the most contentious areas for journalists to operate in, regardless of their roles or positions, and the repression of Palestinian journalists and media outlets remains an injustice which continues to be left unanswered by the world as well as the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority. Last month, it was reported that Israel committed 150 violations against Palestinian journalists over the past three months. For a country that claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East and a beacon of freedom – press freedom in particular – Israel eerily resembles more of a repressive dictatorship in its regard for the press.

READ: Calls to pressure Israel to release 22 Palestinian journalists

Israel’s suppression of the Palestinian free press is more than simply the limitations of what journalists can and cannot report on or the fear that resonates with widespread arrests, but is in fact a war against truth itself. The silencing of journalists signifies the covering up of the realities on the ground in place of sugar-coated agenda-driven narratives, preventing the suppressive authority from taking the opportunity to be accountable and reform for the benefit of society and human rights. Israel’s accusation of “incitement” as a legitimate reason to silence dissent, therefore, is part of its wider war on truth, and grimly reflects the exact same mentality which countless other regimes hold – particularly those in the Gulf – which is that to speak truth to power and report on the facts does nothing but “ruin the prestige” of the state and can even amounts to treason.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.