Freedom of the Press 2008 - Israeli-Occupied Territories / Palestinian Authority

Status: Not Free
Legal Environment: 28 (of 30)
Political Environment: 34 (of 40)
Economic Environment: 22 (of 30)
Total Score: 84 (of 100)
(Lower scores = freer)

While events in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are covered extensively by the international media, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) severely restrict press freedom and often impede the ability of the media to report safely and accurately. The environment for reporting from the West Bank and Gaza Strip further deteriorated in 2007, as journalists came under attack from both militant factions and the leadership of the Islamist party Hamas, who took over authority of the Gaza Strip in June. An atmosphere of impunity continued for crimes against the media, with very few prosecutions of perpetrators by either Israel or the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Basic Law and a 1995 Press Law provide for freedom of the press and an independent media. However, the Press Law also stipulates that journalists may be punished and newspapers closed for publishing material deemed harmful to national unity, or likely to incite crime, hatred, division or sectarian dissension. In August, Hamas leaders announced that they intended to apply the 1995 Press Law and imprison journalists for violating such provisions, but there were no reports of its enforcement.

Israel's army and security services continued to commit a range of abuses against the press in 2007. Journalists were subject to gunfire, physical abuse, arrest, and substantial limits on their freedom of movement. Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) reported that throughout the year, 16 journalists were wounded by fire from Israel Defense Forces (IDF), including live ammunition, rubber bullets, shrapnel, and teargas grenades. Among those injured was Imad Ghanem, a cameraman for the Hamas-affiliated satellite channel al-Aqsa, whose legs were amputated after Israeli tanks opened fire on him in July. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that during an incursion into Nablus in February, IDF soldiers fired stun grenades and teargas at 12 journalists and photographers to prevent them from covering a search and seizure operation. During the same military incursion, soldiers also detained Nabegh Break, the owner and managing director of the local Sanabel TV station, raiding both his home and the station's office. In the West Bank, IDF forces reportedly carried out similar raids on six Palestinian pro-Hamas media outlets in May and three in December, in many cases seizing equipment and thereby forcing the stations to suspend broadcasting. Journalists reporting from the Israeli-occupied territories are required to carry Israeli-issued press cards, which are difficult to obtain, particularly for many Palestinian and Arab journalists. According to the U.S. State Department, on several occasions, IDF soldiers beat, detained, and confiscated the press cards of journalists covering protests against construction of the separation barrier in the West Bank village of Bil'in.

Israel denies that it deliberately targets journalists and maintains that reporters covering the conflict bear responsibility for placing themselves in danger. However, international newswires also quoted an Israeli military source saying that Israel does not recognize cameramen working for Hamas-affiliated channels as journalists because their films are used for intelligence purposes and they are sometimes armed. A new analysis of an audio recording of the 2003 death of British journalist James Miller in Gaza reportedly indicated that the shots that killed Miller were fired from an Israeli military vehicle. In April 2006, a British coroner's court declared that the shooting constituted an unlawful killing on the part of the IDF. The British Attorney General wrote to the Israeli authorities in June 2007 requesting that they begin legal proceedings within six weeks against the officer suspected of firing the shots, however, no proceedings had been launched by year's end.

Since the legislative victory of Hamas in January 2006, Palestinian media outlets have become targets of factional violence between Hamas and Fatah. Danger to journalists and the polarization of the Palestinian media were exacerbated during violence that erupted over the summer in the Gaza Strip, which ended in a Hamas takeover of the area. On May 13, Suleiman Abdul-Rahim Al-Ashi, economics editor for the Hamas-affiliated newspaper Filastin, and Mohammad Matar Abdo, the paper's distribution manager, were shot and killed by gunmen associated with Fatah. A building housing foreign bureaus such as Al-Jazeera and the BBC was also caught in the crossfire between Hamas and Fatah forces on May 16.

Press freedom in Gaza further deteriorated under Hamas rule. From June to November, RSF counted at least nine assaults and 21 arrests of journalists by the Hamas Executive Forces, in what the Foreign Press Association called, "a coordinated policy by Hamas security forces." By mid-June, Hamas fighters had forced all Fatah-affiliated television and radio outlets in the strip to stop broadcasting; at least nine media outlets were shut down, including three state-owned and six privately-owned. In June, Hamas-linked militants conducted an armed raid of the offices of the Gaza branch of the Palestinian Journalists' Syndicate (PJS), and in September, a Hamas government representative announced the dissolution of the PJS, while a new Government Committee for the Media was established. In November, the Interior Ministry in Gaza declared that journalists would not be allowed to continue working in Gaza without obtaining a Hamas-issued press card. Obtaining a card would reportedly require submitting to editorial restrictions such as a vague ban on articles that "cause harm to national unity."

Continuing a disturbing trend from previous years, several foreign journalists were kidnapped by militants in Gaza in 2007. The most prominent victim was the BBC's Alan Johnston who was kidnapped in March and held for 114 days, making it the longest abduction in Gaza to date. The year also saw the first Palestinian journalist to be seized, when Hamas supporters held Abu Dhabi TV's Abdelsalam Mussa Abu-Askar for several hours in May. Danger to journalists reporting from Gaza further increased in June due to the actions of four armed Palestinians who used a jeep with the press markings of a "TV" insignia to attack an Israeli military position.

The Palestinian media have also faced factional violence in the West Bank. The state-owned WAFA TV station had its offices in Nablus stormed by gunmen on January 4, reportedly because their coverage focused on Fatah more than on other factions. In September, Fatah-controlled security forces raided Hebron University to disperse a press conference organized by the pro-Hamas student council, beating students and several journalists in the process. Six pro-Hamas journalists were arrested during the year and eight reporters were attacked by PA security forces within one week during November. These included a correspondent for Al-Jazeera television whose arm was broken when police beat him while he was covering a demonstration in Ramallah against the Annapolis Middle East peace conference.

There are 3 Palestinian dailies in addition to several weekly and monthly periodicals, and the territories host roughly 30 independently owned television stations and 25 radio stations, though several were shut down during the year. The television station and radio station run by the PA function as government mouthpieces, with control exercised primarily by Fatah. Cautious self-censorship exercised by most independent media outlets, particularly on the issue of internal Palestinian politics, further increased in 2007 out of fear of attacks by one faction or another. Israeli checkpoints often prevent newspaper distribution in the territories. After the Hamas takeover of Gaza, the Fatah-led West Bank authorities prevented the printing and distribution of the pro-Hamas Filastin and Al-Risala newspapers in the West Bank for most of the second half of the year. Access to satellite television is increasing, and while the government does not restrict access to the Internet, just over 10 percent of the population accessed it in 2007.

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