(Jerusalem) - The Palestinian Authority should immediately reverse its decision to suspend the operations of Al Jazeera satellite television in the West Bank, Human Rights Watch said today. Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, in his capacity as deputy minister of information, ordered the bureau's suspension on July 15, 2009, the day after it aired allegations against the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.
On the July 14 edition of "Behind the News" (Ma Wara al-Khabar), an Al Jazeera talk show, Farouq al-Qadumi, a high-ranking PLO and Fatah official currently in Amman, Jordan, accused Abbas and his adviser Muhammad Dahlan of participating in what he said was an Israeli plot to assassinate the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Arafat died of unknown causes in Paris in 2004. Al-Qadumi's accusation was widely covered by the Arab media.
"The suspension of Al Jazeera sends a clear message that the Palestinian Authority has red lines when it comes to free speech," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Are they going to silence the media every time someone reports something they don't like? Prime Minister Fayyad should reverse this punitive step."
The Ministry of Information statement signed by Fayyad suspended Al Jazeera's work and prohibited its staff "from doing any work until a final judgment is issued." The statement did not include specific charges, but cited the 1995 Press and Publications Law (No. 9), television licensing regulations from 2004, and "the high interests of the Palestinian people." The Ramallah-based Ma'an news agency reported that Fayyad instructed Attorney General Ahmed al-Mughni to prosecute Al Jazeera for "incitement and [spreading] false information."
Walid al-Omari, Al Jazeera's bureau chief in the West Bank and Israel, told Human Rights Watch that on the morning of July 15, Jamal Zaqout, an aide to Fayyad, told him that Fayyad's cabinet "had taken a decision that would be delivered to Al Jazeera's office."
"I went to the office, and just after my arrival, three policemen in civilian clothes arrived and showed me an order from the Interior Ministry and the police commander saying that we had to stop our operations," al-Omari said.
In a statement, Al Jazeera called the Palestinian Authority's suspension of its operations "repression of media freedom."
According to news reports, the Ministry of Information stated that Al Jazeera "has always dedicated a wide portion of its broadcasts to incitement against the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority."
The Palestinian Authority has harassed Al Jazeera staff in the recent past, al-Omari said. On June 16, security forces detained an Al Jazeera correspondent and a cameraman and deleted a videotaped interview the journalists had just conducted with the family of Haytham Amr, a Hamas member who died in a Palestinian Authority prison in Hebron, and footage of Amr's funeral. Al-Omari told Human Rights Watch that the Palestinian Authority had failed to take adequate steps to investigate several violent incidents, including the burning of Al Jazeera cars in Ramallah and the office of the network's Nablus reporter.
Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) protects the right to freedom of expression, including freedom of the press. International standards on free expression allow limitations on the press in light of important public interests only where "necessary" in "a democratic society."
The Palestinian Authority is not a state and is therefore not party to the ICCPR, but Article 19 of the revised Palestinian Basic Law (2003) states, "Every person shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and expression, and shall have the right to publish his opinion orally, in writing, or in any form of art, or through any other form of expression, provided that it does not contradict the provisions of law." Article 27(3) of the Basic Law prohibits censorship and provides that "no warning, suspension, confiscation, cancellation, or restrictions shall be imposed on media except by law, and in accordance with a judicial ruling."
"President Abbas and Muhammad Dahlan have many ways to protect their reputations and respond to these allegations," Whitson said. "Shutting down Al Jazeera is not an acceptable response."
According to the 2004 television licensing regulations that the Ministry of Information cited in suspending Al Jazeera's operations, in emergency situations that threaten the public welfare, a joint ministerial committee composed of the ministries of information, the interior, and information technology can decide to suspend the operations of a broadcaster temporarily. It appears that the order against Al Jazeera was issued only by Fayyad, however, in his Ministry of Information capacity.
Articles 8 and 37 of the 1995 Press and Publications Law, which the ministry statement also cites, prohibit publications that incite crime or violence. The law also contains a number of overly broad content restrictions. Article 37, for instance, prohibits publication of content that harms national unity or is "inconsistent with morals."
Al-Qadumi, who made the allegations against Abbas, is the secretary-general of Fatah, but he does not recognize the Palestinian Authority and has long been a critic of Abbas. Al-Qadumi does not reside in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.