Five Palestinian journalists have been arrested in the West Bank by Palestinian Authority security forces in what a human rights monitoring group has termed a “serious blow to freedom of opinion and expression.”
All five were arrested at or near their homes on Tuesday night by the General Intelligence Service, according to Shireen al-Khatib, monitoring and documentation associate at the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedom (Mada).
A senior security source quoted by the official Palestinian news agency Wafa said four journalists were being held on suspicion of “leaking sensitive information to hostile authorities.” The source said an investigation was under way.
Khatib identified the journalists as Tariq Abu Zayd and Ahmad Halaika of Al-Aksa television, a Hamas-run station, Qutaiba Kasem who writes for the Asdaa website, Mamdouh Hamamreh of the pro-Hamas al-Quds television and Amer Abu Arafa of the Shehab news agency. The Wafa report mentioned all the journalists except for Halaika.
Abu Arafa was arrested after his home was searched and his computer and mobile phone seized, Khatib said.
A West Bank journalist who requested anonymity said “this is not the first time journalists are being arrested but it is the first time five are arrested in one night.”
In the view of the journalist who spoke with The Jerusalem Post the arrests might be aimed at pressuring Hamas to release Fouad Jaradah, a reporter for the PA’s Palestine TV, who was arrested in Gaza on June 8 and was later accused of collaborating with the authority.
“Journalists are paying the price of the Fatah- Hamas conflict,” the West Bank journalist said.
Of the accusation that the five journalists arrested on Tuesday had leaked sensitive information, he said: “No one believes that.”
The Ramallah-based Independent Commission for Human Rights, which monitors rights abuses in the PA, demanded the immediate release of the journalists and called on the authority to “stop the persecution of journalists for their journalistic work.” It termed the arrests a “serious blow to freedom of opinion and expression.”
The Gaza-based Palestinian Center for Human Rights termed the arrests a “dangerous development.”
In a statement it criticized both the PA and the Hamas government.
“PCHR follows up with concern the measures taken by the authorities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and warns of the arbitrary use of legal texts or fabricating charges to beat their political rivals. This results in serious consequences on the legal system, rights and freedoms in general.
“PCHR calls for releasing the six journalists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip until the validity of the charges against them will be proven in accordance with proper and transparent procedures.”
The human rights group al-Haq, which is also based in Ramallah, said the arrests “come in the wake of a dangerous regression in the condition of rights and liberties in the West Bank and Gaza, especially freedom of opinion and expression and journalistic work.” It said that authorities had blocked journalists from covering peaceful gatherings.
PA government spokesman Yusuf Mahmoud said he could not comment on the arrests since they were under the purview of the security apparatus. But he took issue with the criticism that the PA was harming freedom of expression.
“The authority in all manners respects freedom of the press and freedom of expression,” he said. “This is guaranteed in the agreements signed by the national authority and in the law.
The authority adheres to the freedom of journalists and citizens and greatly respects that.”
In June, the PA blocked access to 11 websites that back Hamas or Muhammad Dahlan, a bitter rival of President Mahmoud Abbas.