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[URUKNET] Muzzling Freedom of Expression in Palestine.
When the Beirut-based Al-Quds satellite television interviewed me last week on the recent genocidal Israeli onslaught on the Gaza Strip, it never occurred to me that the few sound bites I uttered would land me in a slimy prison cell at the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Preventive Security Apparatus (PSA) in Hebron.
During that interview, I was asked why the American-backed regime in Ramallah was not allowing large protests in solidarity with the Gaza Strip. I answered that the PA didn't want things to get out of control and that it didn't wish to antagonize Israel.
Interestingly, Israel itself had allowed a massive demonstration against the war on Gaza to take place in the Israeli Arab town of Sakhnin where as many as 150,000 people, including some Jewish peace activists, took to the streets to protest the nauseating killings and bombings of civilian targets all over the coastal enclave.
I further pointed out that Israel didn't really respect the PA and was effectively treating it as a subservient entity serving Israeli interests.
I did think, and I still, that I was stating the obvious. However, the PA security establishment had a different idea.
Proverbial Cup of Coffee
On Jan. 18, shortly afternoon, someone from the local PSA center invited me to drink a cup of coffee with the head of office for five minutes. Eventually, the "five minutes" were stretched into 55 hours of nightmarish experience.
I knew they wanted to arrest me since most Palestinians have come to associate the onerous telephone call with imminent arrest by any of the security agencies.
When I arrived there, I was neither asked to meet with the local security chief nor offered the proverbial cup of coffee. Instead, I was immediately locked up inside a small room and my mobile phone was confiscated.
My watch and shoe laces were also taken from me. They must have been awfully worried about my safety!
Half an hour later, I was taken to the PSA headquarters in Hebron, 14 kilometers away. There, I was scolded for "besmirching and distorting the PA image," "sowing discontent," and "indulging in incitement."
I was subjected to four sessions of interrogation which covered a whole set of issues and subjects from the Iranian strategy in the Middle East to the receding chances for the creation of a Palestinian state.
I told my interrogators that what they were doing was against the law, since the Palestinian law stated that "the security apparatus has no right to question, interrogate or detain a journalist in connection to his or her work."
When I uttered these words, one operative scoffed at me, saying that "we are in Palestine, not in Sweden."
Small, Semi-dark, Rancid-smelling Room
The interrogators didn't really abuse me neither physically nor verbally. However, I was thrown into a small, semi-dark, rancid-smelling room with two other inmates, one a political prisoner and the other a common-law prisoner. That in itself was a humiliating form of mistreatment.
Getting dumped inside a slimy cell, with an exposed water circuit, was not exactly the right way to treat a journalist who has spent a lifetime defending the just Palestinian cause in face of Israeli propaganda and lies. But, then, they were probably right in a certain sense. The West Bank is not Sweden, and the PA regime is not the government of Sweden.
On Monday evening, Jan. 20, I was asked to meet with the PSA Chief, Abu Al-Fateh, who explained to me that the overall situation facing the PA was sensitive and delicate and that journalists had to be careful and cautious about what they say and write.
I generally concurred with him. However, I did forcefully argue that suppressing freedom of expression, especially press freedom, was a very harmful idea. I further explained that when people are made to fear the government, it means that that the government is undemocratic and had a lot of things to hid from the people.
At the end of the conversation, I was told I could go home.
My latest encounter with the PSA is not the first time I am hounded by the PA security establishment. Last year I was subjected to intensive interrogation by the PA Mukhabarat (or general intelligence), also in connection with my professional work.
In 1998, I was arrested and briefly imprisoned for reporting on the prevalence of torture in some PA interrogation centers. I was also interrogated by both the Palestinian and Israeli security apparatuses over an article I had written on the centrality of the right of return for Palestinian refugees uprooted from their ancestral homeland in what is now Israel.
I knew that the main aim behind my brief but unjustified incarceration was to make me exercise "self-censorship" and refrain from calling things by their real names.
However, for journalists, "self-censorship" is not an innocuous word. It actually represents the ultimate enemy of healthy journalism. After all, a journalist ought to be responsible first and foremost to his or her conscience within the frame of the law.
Unfortunately, very few people within the Palestinian security establishment understand the language of human rights and civil liberties.
This condition is made even worse by the persistent power struggle between Hamas and Fateh, which is often used as a pretext and justification for the police-state atmosphere prevailing in the West Bank now.
Hence, one would exaggerate very little by saying that the situation of human rights and civil liberties is the West Bank is probably worse today than it ever has been since the establishment of the PA more than 15 years ago.
In truth, my latest experience pales in comparison to the more serious persecution haunting non-conformist journalists throughout the West Bank.
Last week, PA security personnel assaulted and severely beat AP correspondent Majdee Ishtayyeh while filming an "unlicensed" demonstration in Ramallah. Ishtayya reportedly was taken to a nearby building where he was badly beaten, causing a severe hemorrhage from his nose.
The 44-year-journalist had to undergo a surgical operation to fix his battered nose at a Nablus hospital.
Some other journalists, photojournalists, and cameramen were violently assaulted and had their equipment broken or confiscated.
Last year, as many as 20 Palestinian journalists were imprisoned for relatively lengthy periods for reporting news or views the PA regime considers detrimental to their interests or image. Many of these journalists were beaten and even tortured for refusing to abide by the "official line."
And in nearly all cases, concocted charges were leveled against them, such as "sowing division, incitement, and endangering national unity."
Last year, Awad Rajoub, an Al-Jazeera.net correspondent was detained in a PSA prison cell in Hebron in what he described "harsh and humiliating conditions" for 32 days. Rajoub was forced to sleep inside a bare room, without mattresses or blankets, and had to use his own shoes as a pillow.
Rajoub was accused of interviewing critics of the PA.
Carte Blanch for Law Violation
In fact, there is a widespread impression that the security agencies are granted a virtual carte blanch to violate the law for the sake of punishing and savaging political opponents of the PA regime, particularly people affiliated with the Islamic camp.
During my brief stint at the Hebron jail, I saw several inmates being subjected to the Shabah (hooding) technique where a prisoner is made to sit down in a small room with his hands tied to his back.
At one point, I heard an inmate crying "why are you beating me, why are you beating me."
The PA government in Ramallah claims that it is doing its utmost to uphold the rule of law. This is its usual response to criticisms voiced by local and international human rights organizations.
However, it is obvious that the status of human rights and civil liberties under the PA continues to deteriorate, especially with the virtual paralysis of the Palestinian justice system and especially in light of the conspicuous hegemony the security agencies exercises over civil society. This is why Palestinians do hope that the PA government, which many people view as both illegal and illegitimate, will issue clear and unmistakable orders to the security agencies to stop arresting and mistreating journalists and to respect the basic human and civil rights of Palestinian citizens.
Such a step is crucial for the creation of a healthy society based on the rule of law and respect for human dignity. It is also a sine-qua-non for the success of the Palestinian national struggle for justice and freedom from the shackles of the colonialist Israeli occupation.
Khalid Amayreh is a journalist living in Palestine. He obtained his MA in journalism from the University of Southern Illinois in 1983. Since the 1990s, Mr. Amayreh has been working and writing for several news outlets among which is Aljazeera.net, Al-Ahram Weekly, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), and Middle East International. He can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org. (Originally published in IslamOnline.net, Jan 26, 2009)
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