Palestinian Authority detains, questions two journalists

New York, April 4, 2012–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the Palestinian Authority’s recent anti-press actions in which one journalist was detained for a week for reporting on alleged corruption and spying and a second was questioned over a critical article and his posts on social media. These actions occurred despite the Authority’s recent announcement of a press freedom award that it claimed would reward “quality and daring material.”

“It is ironic that Palestinian leaders, who for years have benefited from independent media coverage, should now try to stifle their own critical journalists,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “The Palestinian Authority should stop muzzling journalists and scouring social media posts looking for critics to punish.”

Yousef al-Shayeb, a correspondent for the Jordanian daily Al-Ghad, was detained by the Palestinian Authority for 48 hours on March 26 in Ramallah and questioned over his sources for a January 30 article he wrote alleging corruption and spying by the Palestinian diplomatic mission in France, according to news reports. The interrogation followed a defamation complaint filed by the Authority’s foreign minister and the head of the mission that sought $US6 million in damages under Article 189 of the Jordanian Penal Code, which is enforced in the West Bank, according to human rights groups. The law permits damages for libel in print media.

Al-Shayeb is also accused of defaming government officials, a charge that can carry up to two years in prison under Article 191 of the code, according to rights groups. Shortly after the complaint was filed, al-Shayeb was fired from Al-Ghad, news reports said.

On March 28, Ramallah’s first instance court ordered the journalist’s detention to be extended for another 15 days, news reports said. The same day, al-Shayeb began waging a hunger strike, and the Palestinian Journalist’s Syndicate held a sit-in protest, news reports said. On April 2, Ramallah’s Magistrate Court ordered the journalist’s release on bail of 10,000 Jordanian dinars (US$14,000), according to local and international rights groups. He has not been charged yet.

Al-Shayeb’s article accused Palestinian Authority deputy ambassador Safwat Ibraghit in Paris of recruiting Arab students to spy on Islamic groups in France and abroad, and sharing that information with both Palestinian and foreign intelligence agencies. The journalist also accused Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, Palestinian National Fund Director Ramzi Khouri Abu Nabil, and Palestinian Authority Ambassador in Paris Hael al-Fahoum of complicity and nepotism in promoting Ibraghit to his post despite his ties to foreign intelligence agencies and the complaints leveled against him, CPJ’s review of the article found. On Thursday, al-Maliki told reporters that al-Shayeb’s arrest was justified and that the journalist filed his story knowing it “contained falsehoods,” and suggested that he and the government were the victims, news reports said.

In a separate incident, the Palestinian Authority interrogated Tariq Khamis, a reporter for the news website Zaman Press, for three hours over his Facebook posts about Ismat Abdel-Khalek, a university professor who was detained on Wednesday after posting allegedly defamatory comments about President Mahmoud Abbas and calling him a traitor,” news reports said. The journalist told the online news website Electronic Intifada on Monday that he was also interrogated about an article he had recently published in Zaman Press about Palestinian youth groups who were critical of the Authority and were calling for negotiations with Israel to end.

These anti-press incidents follow the Palestinian Authority’s March 27 announcement of a press freedom prize recognizing exemplary journalism. The annual prize is intended to “support local media and encourage journalists to compete and produce quality and daring material that addresses citizens’ concerns,” the prime minister in Ramallah, Salam Fayyad, said, according to news reports. Fayyad asked journalists to submit their work during the first half of April, so the winner could be announced in May, the reports said.