Beirut, January 9, 2019 -- The Committee to Protect Journalists today expressed concern about the arrests last month of Palestinian journalists Zaid Abu Ara, a reporter for the London-based Quds Press News Agency, and Motasem Saqf al-Hit, a photographer for the Hamas-affiliated Quds News Network. Al-Hit has been released, but Abu Ara remains in detention.
On December 31, 2018, Palestinian Preventive Security officers arrested Abu Ara at his home in the West Bank village of Aqqaba, according to news reports, the regional press freedom group Skeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, and the journalist's father.
"We are concerned about the prolonged detention without charge of Zaid Abu Ara, given the Palestinian Authority's record on respecting the rights of journalists," said CPJ's Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, Sherif Mansour from Washington, D.C. "The Palestinian authorities should immediately either clarify the charges against him or let him go."
Tensions between the Fatah party, which controls the Palestinian Authority, and the rival Hamas movement have been rising in recent weeks after Fatah accused Hamas in late December 2018 of carrying out widespread arrests of Fatah members and sympathizers in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, in order to thwart the 54th anniversary of Fatah's first attacks on Israel, according to news reports.
Abu Ara's father, senior Hamas official Sheikh Mustafa Abu Ara, told CPJ that Preventive Security officers showed up at the journalist's home at 1 a.m. on December 31 and began searching the house.
"They seized his laptop, cell phone, and a memory card and placed him under arrest without initially mentioning any charge against him," Abu Ara's father said.
The Palestinian Interior Ministry, which is controlled by Fatah and oversees the Preventative Security Forces, did not immediately reply to CPJ's call requesting comment.
According Sheikh Mustafa Abu Ara, the journalist's detention at the Preventive Security jail in the town of Tubas has been extended twice.
"On January 2, his detention was extended for eight days and he was accused of receiving donations from foreign parties by which they mean the salary he receives for his work as a reporter and editor for Quds Press," Abu Ara's father told CPJ.
Sheikh Mustafa Abu Ara posted on Facebook yesterday that the Magistrate Court in Tubas turned down a request to release his son on bail. Today, he told CPJ that the court had extended his son's detention for a further 15 days without revealing the charge or citing a legal reason.
According to news reports and his employer, Abu Ara has been arrested by the Palestinian security forces several times over the past few years. In July 2016, he was taken in for questioning by Palestinian intelligence and held for several hours without charges, according to Palestinian news agency Sawa.
In a separate case, Palestinian Preventive Security forces arrested photojournalist Motasem Saqf al-Hit while he was covering a political rally of the ruling Fatah party on Martyr's Square in the northern West Bank city of Nablus on December 30, according to news reports and Skeyes. He was released on January 6.
Al-Hit's brother was quoted by Skeyes as saying that the family was not initially informed of the reasons for his arrest.
Attorney Firas Karajah, a lawyer with the local press freedom group Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA), told CPJ that al-Hit was held without charge for 48 hours and was subsequently referred to the public prosecutor, which requested that his detention be extended for another 48 hours on allegations of defaming the public authorities.
"On January 2, the public prosecutor requested that his detention be extended for 15 days to complete the investigation and the judge agreed, but I filed an appeal and submitted a memorandum to the Judicial Council reporting legal irregularities," Karajah said. "The prosecutor on January 6 decided to shelve the case and release the journalist on 2,000 Jordanian dinars [$2,818] bail, but suspended the bail. He was released on the same day."