Palestinian Authority Territories - 1999 World Report Chapter FREE    Join the HRW Mailing List 
Palestinian Authority Security Force Abuses
End Arrests of Journalists and Media Closures
(New York, October 5, 1999) -- Human Rights Watch today urged President Yasir Arafat to publicly denounce security forces' attacks on journalists and to prosecute all officials who violate the right to free expression. In its letter to the Palestinian president, the New York-based organization said that in the past six months alone there have been two television stations closed and at least eight individuals detained because of reporting and commentary critical of Palestinian Authority actions.

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"While promising free and fair elections, the government used every means at its disposal to tilt the playing field. It now stands poised to repeat this blatant manipulation in the parliamentary vote."

Holly Cartner
Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Europe and Central Asia Division

"The P.A. is using the threat of arrest and closure to silence its critics," said Hanny Megally, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "Every arrest sends a message, and that message is heard."

In most cases the arrests and closures take place without warrants or written orders from the relevant agencies. The police may call ahead to say they have orders from "higher up" for someone's arrest, or simply show up in the middle of the night. In at least one case, police told a human rights activist that President Arafat had ordered his arrest and interrogation after learning of an article he had written criticizing the Palestinian Authority's recent crackdown on human rights organizations.

For further information:
Clarisa Bencomo (New York) 212-216-1232

The text of the letter follows. 4 October 1999

His Excellency Yasir Arafat
Palestinian Authority
Gaza City, Gaza District

Your Excellency,

Human Rights Watch is deeply disturbed by the Palestinian Authority's repeated attempts to intimidate and silence journalists and commentators critical of P.A. policies, including by arbitrarily arresting or summoning individuals for interrogation and by closing down newspapers, television stations, and other media outlets. The detention by P.A. police of journalists Munir Abu Rizq of al-Hayat al-Jadida newspaper and Salih al-Na`ami of al-Risala weekly newspaper on Tuesday, September 28, 1999, and the subsequent detention of Fathi Subah of al-Ayyam daily newspaper and Wa'il Abu Duqqa of al-Jazeera Television on Wednesday September 29, 1999 is only the most recent of several actions taken against individuals exercising their legitimate right to free expression.

In a press release announcing the journalists' release Police Chief Brig. Gen. Ghazi al-Jabali said that al-Na`ami and Rizq's arrests were actually "summonses by the Palestinian Police to two journalists in the context of investigations that the police are conducting to discover the source that circulated false news aimed at defaming the Palestinian Authority without it having any basis in fact."

Al-Jabali's account contradicts his statement earlier on Wednesday, when he said that al-Na`ami and Rizq had been "detained since last night on a charge of spreading false news and defaming the Palestinian Authority." The characterization of the journalists' detention and interrogation as a summons is also brought into question by reports that police seized al-Na`ami and Rizq at their homes at night, and raided the al-Jazeera office in Ramallah before arresting Duqqa. According to the Journalists' Union, in no case was there a legal basis for the arrests and no arrest warrants were presented during the arrests.

These arrests are part of a larger pattern of security force interventions to block free expression. In the last six months alone there have been at least two television stations closed and eight individuals detained, including the September 15 arrest of Maher al-Dessuqi of al-Quds Educational TV three days after he hosted a program in which a guest in a live interview criticized your policies; the August 5 interrogation of Eyad Sarraj, former secretary-general of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizen Rights, four days after the publication of his article criticizing the PA's crackdown on human rights organizations; the detention of three al-Risala newspaper editors two days after a May 20 story alleging police torture; the closure since May 17 of Bethlehem-based al-Ru'ah TV after it aired a play that security officials alleged incited prejudice between Christians and Muslims; and the almost three week closure of Hebron-based Amal TV on April 26, after it broadcast a program on corruption in Islam.

With the exception of al-Dessuqi, all of the arrests and closures appear to have taken place without the issuance of the required search, arrest, or closure orders. In several instances police officers told journalists that they were acting on orders from "higher up." In the case of Dr. Sarraj, high-ranking police officers specifically alleged that Your Excellency had ordered Dr. Sarraj's arrest and interrogation, and during the interrogation Brig. Gen. al-Jabali showed Dr. Sarraj a report to Your Excellency which contained excerpts from his article criticizing P.A. attacks on NGOs.

Your Excellency has in the past frequently stated the PLO's commitment to abide by the obligations in international treaties on human rights. The right to freedom of opinion and expression are enshrined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." Your Excellency's continuing silence in the face of the serious violations mentioned above raises grave questions regarding your own acquiescence and approval of these actions.

Human Rights Watch urges Your Excellency to act now to stop the continuing erosion of freedom of expression in the Palestinian Authority territories. This can be done by first declaring publicly that the security forces' illegal interference in the exercise of the rights to freedom of opinion and expression will no longer be tolerated and that those found responsible for such actions will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Secondly, as an indication of the seriousness with which you aim to stamp out such violations, you should order an investigation into all cases of complaints about undue interference by the security services in the exercise of free expression and ensure that anyone found guilty is duly brought to justice and the victims compensated.



Hanny Megally
Executive Director
Middle East and North Africa Division

cc: Minister of Information Yasir Abed Rabbo
Chief of Police Brig. Gen. Ghazi al-Jabali