April 6, 2011


Security forces of the Palestinian Authority (PA) have arbitrarily detained scores of West Bank journalists since 2009, and in some cases abused them during interrogation in a manner that amounted to torture. Like other Palestinian victims of abuse by the PA’s security services, these journalists confront a virtual wall of impunity when they try to hold their abusers accountable, leaving the victims feeling vulnerable to further harassment and abuse. The combination of abuse and impunity has, according to some journalists, produced an intended “chilling effect” on free expression and led to increasing self-censorship.

This report documents how the PA’s Preventive Security and General Intelligence security agencies arbitrarily and repeatedly detained journalists, prevented them from seeing lawyers or family members while in detention, confiscated or damaged their equipment, and in some cases tortured them. In the seven West Bank cases that Human Rights Watch investigated, the harassment and abuse of journalists reflected attempts to prevent free speech and inquiry into matters of public importance, and to punish writers solely because of their statements critical of the PA or their perceived support of its political rivals.

In four cases, the security services targeted journalists whom they perceived as sympathetic to the PA’s bitter rival, Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement), which controls the Gaza Strip and also counts many supporters among West Bank Palestinians. In three incidents, the PA’s security services abused politically independent journalists who had been publicly critical of Hamas but also had criticized the PA. In one case, security forces arrested a journalist on suspicion that he was preparing critical articles about subjects such as corruption among PA officials. The PA has directed its abusive practices against not only Hamas supporters among journalists but also against Islamist-leaning and independent journalists who engage in critical reporting.

Journalists in the Gaza Strip have also faced arbitrary detention, assault, and other forms of harassment from the Hamas authorities there. The focus of this report is on PA abuses in the West Bank, but that focus is not meant to imply an absence of abuses by Hamas in Gaza.  Although reported abuses against journalists have been less frequent in Gaza, Human Rights Watch continues to monitor the situation there closely and includes in this report two cases of abuse by Hamas authorities to demonstrate that problems do exist.

Human Rights Watch cannot point to instructions from PA leaders to the security services that they commit these violations, but the utter failure of the PA leadership to address the prevailing culture of impunity for such abuses suggests that they reflect government policy. Human Rights Watch is aware of only a single case (which did not involve a journalist) in which PA security service officers have stood trial for arbitrarily detaining or abusing detainees, and even in that case, a PA military court acquitted all the accused on charges of torturing a man to death in June 2009. Nor has the PA instituted meaningful long-term reforms, such as subjecting the Preventive Security, General Intelligence Service (GIS), and other security services to the jurisdiction of civilian courts or requiring that all security forces inform a detainee of the reason for detention at the time he is taken into custody, ensuring that the detainee is promptly brought before a judge with the power to order his or her release, and compensating persons who have been arbitrarily detained.

In cases of arrest and detention, the security services typically act on warrants issued by the PA’s military judicial authority, including warrants issued by military courts against civilians in defiance of explicit provisions of Palestinian law and numerous Palestinian High Court of Justice rulings. (The military judiciary announced that as of January 16, 2011, it would cease exercising jurisdiction over civilians; as of March 17, at least 25 civilians in military detention had been released, but the Palestinian human rights group Al Haq identified “tens of cases” in which security agencies were still detaining civilians and military courts had issued verdicts against civilians). The security services exert further control over Palestinian journalists by virtue of their role in approving or rejecting journalists’ ability to cover certain events based on a review a journalist’s political profile; international NGOs report that the security services have rejected dozens of journalists whom they perceive to have Islamist sympathies.

The US and Europe provide a substantial amount of the PA’s budget, including the salaries of the security services. The majority of publicly-reported US and European funding for Palestinian security services goes to support the PA’s National Security Forces and Civil Police, while other PA security agencies perpetrate the greatest share of abuse. According to reports by security experts and leaked documents, the US and UK have also directly funded the Preventive Security agency and GIS, which are responsible for most alleged arbitrary detention and torture. Human Rights Watch is unaware of any instance in which a foreign donor placed conditions on its aid requiring the PA to hold these abusive security services accountable.

This report also refers to several cases in which journalists in both the West Bank and Gaza have been attacked by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Violations by Israeli forces will be the subject of future reporting.