Palestinians Put Squeeze on Free Press

GAZA/RAMALLAH (Reuters) -

On Sept. 1, half a dozen Hamas security officials called at the home of Mohammed Othman, a young journalist in Gaza who had written several probing articles. They seized two laptops, two mobile phones and took Othman away for questioning.

Twenty-four hours later, after what he described as an intense interrogation, the 29-year-old was released, but not before he had been asked to sign a document promising not to criticize Hamas or its security services. Othman says he refused.

“They were telling me things trying to scare me and influence me,” he told Reuters the day after his release, describing being slapped around during the detention. “I discovered the reality is worse than I thought.”

The Hamas-run Government Media Office in Gaza said Othman was detained by internal security on a warrant issued by the prosecutor’s office, and denied he was mistreated.

“We have great respect for the rights of journalists to work freely and write everything,” the head of the office, Salama Maarouf, told Reuters. “The general policy is to allow journalists to work freely and not to touch their rights.”

Despite that, media monitoring and human rights groups say press freedom is under threat in Yehudah and Shomron and Gaza, with both Hamas and Fatah increasingly wary of journalists and bloggers who write critically or seek to expose wrongdoing.

“[They] are arresting, abusing and criminally charging journalists and activists who express peaceful criticism of the authorities,” Human Rights Watch said in a report in August.

“Both Palestinian governments, operating independently, have apparently arrived at similar methods of harassment, intimidation and physical abuse of anyone who dares criticize.”

The Independent Commission for Human Rights reported that 24 people in Yehudah and Shomron and 21 in Gaza were arrested in 2015 for criticizing Palestinian authorities or writing about forbidden topics.

Veteran Palestinian journalists say the situation is worsening. For years their biggest fear was the Israeli military, and in the past year it has shut down two radio stations in Chevron. But now it is just as often the Palestinian authorities clamping down.

“There was a great hope that under Palestinian rule media freedom would flourish,” said Emad Saada, 50, who has worked for the Palestinian daily newspaper al-Quds for 25 years.

“But violations and restrictions against the freedom of the press continued in one way or another…”

The result, journalists say, is an increasing amount of self-censorship. With reporters and bloggers being detained for weeks and in some cases suffering physical harm, others are thinking twice about how probing they want to be.