Freedom of the Press
West Bank and Gaza Strip *
Journalists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip faced extensive obstacles to safe and independent reporting in 2015. Media workers were routinely and deliberately attacked while covering protests and clashes involving security forces, particularly during a wave of violence in the latter half of the year. Israeli forces, officials loyal to Hamas in Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank all detained journalists without charge.
- Palestinian security forces arrested more than two dozen journalists over the course of the year, typically interrogating them and holding them for short periods without charge as a form of intimidation. The Israeli military continued to hold Palestinian journalists in administrative detention.
- Israeli forces closed three West Bank radio stations in November for allegedly inciting violence, while the PA suppressed a Hamas-affiliated television station and sought to close the local office of a London-based Arabic news outlet.
Legal Environment: 27 / 30
The Palestinian Basic Law guarantees a free press, enshrines the right to establish media outlets, and prohibits government censorship. However, the 1995 Press and Publication Law imposes burdensome administrative regulations and bans content that undermines “the general system” or “national unity,” or that is “inconsistent with morals.” Defamation is a criminal offense, and journalists have been prosecuted for publishing criticism of Palestinian officials.
According to the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA), the Ramallah-based PA, led by the Fatah faction, arrested at least 18 journalists during the year, while the Hamas-controlled authorities in Gaza made 13 arrests. For example, Radi Ahmad Karameh, a presenter with Radio Alhoriya in Hebron, was arrested in March for insulting senior PA political figures. However, few of these arrests led to formal charges, and none resulted in convictions, amounting instead to a means of intimidating critical journalists. In December 2015, reporter George Kanawati was finally acquitted after more than four years of legal proceedings initiated by the head of the Bethlehem governorate in response to a Facebook post in which Kanawati criticized the local health department.
Various freedom of information bills have been under review for several years, with progress repeatedly delayed. A draft law was ready for submission to the PA cabinet of ministers in December 2015, but it had not passed by year’s end.
The PA regulates all television and radio licenses in the West Bank. In order to obtain a broadcast license, applicants must gain approval from the interior, information, and telecommunications ministries, which review financing sources, content, and technical issues, respectively. Licenses must be renewed each year. Critics accuse the PA of arbitrarily increasing licensing fees—even though prices are supposed to correspond to the strength and reach of the broadcast frequency—in order to force outlets off the air. Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007, has introduced a system of accreditation that requires all outlets and journalists to register with its authorities.
In addition to Palestinian laws, as administered by the different authorities in the West Bank and Gaza, journalists in the territories are subject to controls imposed by the Israeli military, including measures banning incitement to terrorism. Israeli military prosecutions for incitement increased markedly from October through the end of 2015 in response to an outbreak of violence between Palestinians and Israeli Jews that was concentrated in East Jerusalem. The legal standard for incitement under the Israeli military code, to which the West Bank is subject, is much lower than in Israeli civilian law.
Political Environment: 34 / 40 (↑1)
Media outlets and journalists in the West Bank and Gaza are affected by political pressure and violence from both Palestinian and Israeli authorities. Censorship, including self-censorship, is common among Palestinian media organizations. According to a 2014 MADA report, more than 68 percent of journalists in the Palestinian territories said their work or their colleagues’ work had been barred from publication at least once. The same report found that over 80 percent of Palestinian journalists had engaged in self-censorship.
In October 2015, the PA information ministry announced that it was shuttering the Ramallah office of the London-based online newspaper Al-Araby al-Jadeed after it published an article that was critical of the PA. Although officials informed the paper’s staff of this decision in person, they refused to produce documentation affirming it, leaving the office’s status unclear. In 2014, Hamas and the Fatah-led PA lifted bans on each other’s affiliated newspapers that had prevented them from being published in Gaza and the West Bank, respectively. However, in November 2015, during a spike in violence across the occupied territories, the PA ordered broadcasters in the West Bank to cease airing the Hamas-linked television channel Al-Aqsa, headquartered in Gaza.
Israeli authorities also engaged in censorship of Palestinian media. In November 2015, Israeli forces closed down three radio stations in the West Bank city of Hebron—Manbar al-Huriya, Al-Khalil Radio, and Dream Radio—and confiscated or destroyed their equipment. The stations were suspended for six months for allegedly inciting violence, a claim denied by the outlets. Several other broadcast outlets were threatened with closure.
MADA recorded a total of 599 press freedom violations in 2015, a significant increase over the previous year and the highest number recorded since the organization began tracking them roughly a decade earlier. However, the 2014 total included incidents of much greater severity, with many media workers killed in the context of Israel’s summer military campaign against Hamas in Gaza. In 2015, the violations included the closure of media outlets, the arbitrary arrest and detention of journalists, and cases of intimidation and physical assault. MADA found that about 68 percent of the violations were committed by Israeli forces, while 32 percent were committed by either the PA or Hamas.
Israeli forces in the West Bank regularly obstructed the work of journalists in the field during the year. Checkpoints—which entail searches, interrogations, and sometimes short detentions—have long hindered movement and limited journalists’ ability to report within the occupied territories. The Israeli military has also curbed coverage of regular protests near the Israeli security barrier in the West Bank by declaring such areas “closed military zones.” In April 2015, soldiers were caught on video assaulting and throwing stones at Israeli and Palestinian photojournalists at a weekly protest site in the village of Nabi Saleh.
Press freedom violations escalated sharply in the final third of 2015, when security broke down across the West Bank amid a series of stabbings and other attacks targeting Israeli soldiers and civilians and related violence by Israeli security forces against Palestinian civilians. In mid-September, for example, at least 10 journalists were injured by Israeli forces while covering protests at East Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, with several describing some combination of direct assaults, attacks with pepper spray, seizure or destruction of equipment, and short detentions. In a similar incident in December, members of the PA security forces attacked a group of Palestinian reporters covering a demonstration in the city of Al-Bireh and confiscated video equipment.
In addition to physical attacks, journalists continued to face arbitrary arrests and detention in 2015. Arrests and interrogations by Palestinian forces were reportedly accompanied by physical mistreatment and verbal abuse. Israeli forces made use of administrative detention, under which individuals can be held indefinitely without trial. In October, Ali Aliwiwe of Palestinian Radio 4 was arrested in Hebron and placed in administrative detention. He had already spent six months in administrative detention earlier in 2015, and he remained behind bars at year’s end. In another prominent case, Muhammed al-Qeeq, a Palestinian correspondent for the Saudi-owned television network Al-Majd, began a hunger strike after being arrested in Ramallah in November and placed in administrative detention. He too remained in Israeli custody at year’s end.
Israel continued to curtail reporters’ access to the Gaza Strip in 2015. In June, several journalists were detained and deported along with a group of activists whom the Israeli navy intercepted as their flotilla attempted to break Israel’s maritime blockade of the territory. Hamas regularly violated journalists’ rights in Gaza during the year, including by assaulting those attempting to cover demonstrations and other events. In May, Al-Jazeera journalist Ahmad Abu Fayyad was assaulted by police while covering a visit by a Turkish official. After being treated for his injuries at a hospital, Abu Fayyad was taken to a police station and urged to sign a document saying he was responsible for the violence, though he refused and was eventually released on bail. One journalist died in Gaza under unclear circumstances. Kamal Mohamad Ali Abu Nahel, a reporter for Palestine TV, was found dead near his home in Gaza City in April, with evidence suggesting that he had been stabbed multiple times. However, according to MADA, an investigation by local authorities was quickly halted, and a forensic medical report, while acknowledging the injuries, sought to emphasize the role of Abu Nahel’s chronic illnesses in his death.
Economic Environment: 22 / 30
The PA and Hamas fund four of five major Palestinian newspapers, and they are not editorially independent in practice. In the West Bank, Al-Hayat al-Jadidah is exclusively funded by the PA, which also partially finances Al-Ayyam. Hamas funds the twice-weekly Al-Risala and the daily Filistin. Al-Quds, a family-owned, Jerusalem-based newspaper established in 1951, is considered less vulnerable to partisan influence. Its East Jerusalem location, however, makes it subject to Israeli military censorship.
There are more than a dozen West Bank television stations and between 60 and 70 radio stations, in addition to the handful of television stations and approximately two dozen radio stations operating in Gaza. West Bank broadcasters are generally small outlets that focus on local issues. In Gaza, Hamas allows transmission of the PA-controlled Palestine TV, based in Ramallah. Much like the subsidized print outlets, these channels are seen as mouthpieces for Hamas and the PA. Residents also have access to a variety of foreign broadcasts.
Access to reliable telecommunications technology in the territories is severely limited by Israeli restrictions. Neither the West Bank nor Gaza is permitted to have independent telecommunications infrastructure; all routing switches, cell towers, and gateway switches that provide phone service are located in Israeli-controlled territory. In addition, Israel controls access to the electromagnetic spectrum across the territories, and long prohibited Palestinian companies from offering 3G mobile internet services, leaving that market in the hands of Israeli carriers. However, in November 2015 Israel and the PA announced that this prohibition would be lifted in the near future.