By Stephen Oryszcuk Foreign editor, Jewish News
Should Palestinian journalists be allowed to report the news?
It seems like a daft question to us Brits. Yes, of course they should. Anyone can. In fact, it’s important that anyone be allowed to report the news, especially in zones of conflict and misinformation, such as the Middle East.
Israel, with its enlightened Western values, should agree with all this, you’d think. But as a Western journalist interested in fair and honest accounts, I’ve been saddened to see how events on the ground suggest otherwise.
Earlier this month, Israeli police raided the Palestinian Authority’s media centre, Palmedia, during a live broadcast, as it reported on a hunger strike by hundreds of Palestinian detainees.
The charge precipitating the raid was that the channel was operating without the correct frequency licence, in other words a paperwork offence. Cue the arrest and interrogation of the producer.
The strong-arm tactics were condemned around the world, with freedom of information group Reporters Without Borders saying the raid “joins the long list of violations of Palestinian news media rights by Israeli security forces”.
The group, which guards against the intimidation of journalists, also claimed the station had been recently getting “threats couched in violent language from the Israeli army”.
RWB was not alone in its criticism. Last Monday, 15 seasoned Israeli journalists, led by Gal Berger from the Israel Broadcasting Authority, blasted the Israeli authorities for the raid.
The journalists, many of whom are members of the Forum of Palestinian Affairs Correspondents in Israel (FPAC), said it was “part of a series,” that it “would limit freedom of expression” and “instil fear”.
Concluding, they said: “We are aware of the tension in Palestinian-Israeli relations, but demand that the Israeli authorities not run their political battle against the Palestinian Authority at the expense of journalists.”
This was not the first time the Israeli military has targeted Palestinian media. In 2012, Palestinian TV transmission equipment was seized, together with 10 years’ worth of files, and in February a station in Tulkarem was ordered to suspend broadcasting, once again for frequency violations.
It’s not just TV being targeted. Palestinian journalists from all manner of media outlets have not been allowed into Israel for months. Veteran Israeli correspondent Avi Isscharoff says the ban is “stupid, bad, wrong” and, after being attacked by Palestinian protesters near Ramallah, held the sanction was partly responsible.
“It is to be condemned and halted,” he wrote.
He understood the Palestinian complaint of double standards, he said, because they cannot enter Israel yet they continue to see Israeli journalists travelling the other way to cover the West Bank and elsewhere.
“Israeli reporters have become accustomed to entering the State of Palestine without permission,” says the PA’s deputy minister of information, Mahmoud Khalifa.
Unfortunately, the litany doesn’t end there. Individual Palestinian journalists are now being increasingly arrested by Israeli security services.
Last year, Mohammed al-Azza and Mohammad Saba’aneh were each held for several months, while in April, Haifa-based Majd Kayyal was detained for attending a conference in Lebanon.
He now faces 15 years in prison for “visiting an enemy state,” a charge based on laws dating back to 1948, which human rights group Adalah said “was made to put pressure on him”.
What to make of all this?
First, let’s get a bit of balance. Israel is certainly not alone in taking actions seen as detrimental to press freedom.
As the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) notes, both Fatah and Hamas have “a consistent and troublesome record of silencing journalists who reported dissenting perspectives”.
In July, Hamas shut the Gaza offices of Al-Arabiya and the Palestinian news agency Ma’an, accusing them of publishing “false” news.
Still, Israel ought to know better.
If it really is a beacon of freedom in the Middle East, it needs to extend this freedom to Palestinians to report without fear of arrest.
Intervening on flimsy charges will only lead the world to suspect it is trying to hide something. I don’t believe it is. But, equally, I do believe we should know what is going on.
Outside the Palestinian media, the hunger strike is almost completely off-radar, yet it is a major event in Middle East politics, with potentially major repercussions.
Who knew? Who knew that it began in April? That the Red Cross is increasingly worried about it? That almost 300 people (some of whom are being held without charge) are now refusing food? And who knew that, only last week, Israeli politicians voted to force-feed them through tubes excruciatingly inserted down their throats?
Who signs up to this? Very few of us, I’d imagine. But if no one knows about it, then no one says anything, so by implication we all do.
That’s why knowing is so important and why, as a journalist, it’s where I feel I’m doing my job. Let the Palestinian journalists do theirs. Until they can, the country I’ve come to know and love will be letting itself down.