The state of press freedom in Palestine

Despite antiquated laws restricting press freedom in Palestine, the courts have generally respected keeping journalistic sources anonymous.

al-monitor "Freedom of Speak" by Jenin-based cartoonist Mohammed Sabaaneh explores freedom of speech and press in Palestine. Photo by Mohammed Sabaaneh / cartoonmovement.com.

Topics covered

tv, state censorship, radio, newspapers, news and media, media freedom, freedom of press, censorship

Dec 18, 2013

“Perhaps the most difficult question for me is how to meld media freedom whose ceiling is the sky, as some people claim, and laws that strangle that freedom.” With these words, Palestinian legal expert Dawud Daraawi, a former judge now known as the “lawyers’ advocate,” started his talk about the laws restricting freedom of the press and information.

He talked about corruption and thorny issues in the Palestinian territories. He said, “From this standpoint, taking a balanced approach between two opposites (freedom and law) is a difficult matter. If you ask me what’s the best law to ensure press freedom, I would say that there should be no laws regulating this freedom in the first place. [Press freedom] should be available enough for the [press] to achieve its objectives.”

In 2012 and 2013, the Palestinian territories, both in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, saw multiple violations by security forces against Palestinian journalists. Some of those violations took place under the pretext of the law. Reports by local, Arab and international bodies considered last year to have been the “worst” for press freedom in Palestine.

Rights violations ... with legal pretexts

Daraawi thinks that the Western press has also gone through difficult stages, including being tightly controlled and sometimes transformed into a government tool. But media freedom in the West has remained absolute, or near-absolute, as well as a fundamental international right related to other rights, such as the right to freedom of opinion, thought and access to information.

“In Palestine, and in many Arab countries, the relationship between law and freedom is like the relationship between the rail and the train. The rail directs the train toward its goals, limits its speed and recklessness and guarantees its safe arrival. Without that, the train may flip over or face obstacles that prevent it from reaching its goal, which is the citizen’s right to know. ... The media plays the role of the agent in relation to the right of the citizen to know. ... From here, the International Committee for Human Rights has put together basic criteria restricting freedom, but in a way that does not paralyze [the media.] The first of these criteria is to restrict [freedom] according to a clear standard that cannot be interpreted in multiple ways, and that the restriction serves a legitimate and necessary public interest so as not to hinder or paralyze freedom.”

Press freedom means the right to access, circulate and disseminate information. Daraawi thinks that Palestinian laws should adopt the above-mentioned international standards about press freedom. He said, “However, until now, no law guaranteeing the right to access information has been passed. And without this right, knowledge cannot be obtained. In effect, we have opened the floodgates where journalists use their discretion on how to obtain information in an atmosphere dominated by a closed-door mind-set, especially in the government.”

Legal texts ... on paper only?

So it is clear that there is no Palestinian law, or even a legal text, guaranteeing the right to access information. Observers believe that this is one of the most important factors for the spread of corruption because “one cannot fight corruption without passing laws allowing journalists, and the citizens in general, the right to access information from its source in the public institutions,” according to Daraawi. He pointed out that the anti-corruption law in Palestine provides for the need that the anti-corruption commission coordinate with the media to fight corruption and find ways to end it.

Furthermore, Daraawi stressed the right of the press to maintain the confidentiality of its sources so that the press can perform its duty to the fullest. He also pointed to the existence of a legal text in the Press and Publications Law that permits Palestinian journalists not to reveal sources except when ordered by the court and only in specific cases, such as to preserve public order, to prevent a crime from being committed or when it’s to serve justice.

“But unfortunately, recently public prosecutors took journalists to court to force them to reveal their sources. The court refused those demands because the issue is sacred and a basic guarantee for press freedom. But in some cases the judge may misuse his discretionary power, especially since the most important guarantee of a free press is the existence of a free and fair judiciary that can deal with the legal provisions protecting this freedom. So some legal material, particularly in the Jordanian penal code issued in 1960 and in force in the Palestinian territories, can be used to crack down on the press to force it to reveal its sources,” Daraawi said.

In contrast, Daraawi stressed the importance of not exaggerating the so-called publishing crimes “because those are linked to laws dating back more than six decades. There’s a need to develop special procedures to protect journalists.” He pointed out that today’s international orientation is not to criminalize this kind of issue and not take tough measures, such as preventative arrests, based on antiquated legal texts aimed at undermining journalists.

Public opinion issues

Majed al-Arouri, an expert in media law issues, said that “crimes of libel and defamation may be a sword of Damocles handing over journalists’ heads if they made a mistake professionally. That issue is often raised when covering corruption cases.” He pointed to the difficulty of journalists working in this framework and stressed the need to arm them with enough knowledge through the use of legal terminology, especially when they cover corruption cases.

But what’s more important for the press, in Arouri’s opinion, is its ability to prove that its information is true. “That is an extremely important point. We often see officials threatening reporters with maximum penalties. Then we notice that the issue went cold without any legal steps being taken, because going to court entails getting public opinion involved in the case.”

In the few cases that went to court, the Palestinians were surprised to see ambassadors and political officials being summoned as witnesses, thus giving journalists a kind of protection because they are in open court. And those issues became public opinion issues.

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