The Middle East is becoming quieter. No, the swords are not turning into plowshares, it’s not that kind of quiet. Instead, it is the sound of truth that’s slowly being silenced. And it’s happening not only because the PA grows stronger, but also because the west grows weaker.
Thirty years ago the young Arab journalist Khaled abu Toameh quit working for PLO media outlets. They did not allow reporting on what abu Toameh saw as the news people needed to know. Instead, he was told to take the words dictated by the Arab leadership, and cut and paste them into the stories they then published, but under his byline. They weren’t his words and it wasn’t the news, so he turned to western media for outlets that allowed him to write and speak about what people needed to know.
In those thirty years the PA media has not become more open. Instead, the PA leadership has become more emboldened and the western media – either because of physical or moral exhaustion – is allowing the PA’s censorship to seep into and rot away at core freedoms, both of speech and of the press.
Under the Palestinian Authority’s Penal Code, a holdover from when Jordan illegally occupied the territories, defamation suspects can be arrested and held in detention for up to six months before they are charged with a crime. Esmat Abdul-Khalik, an al Quds University lecturer and single mother of two, was arrested in late March and held in solitary confinement and denied the possibility of any visits because someone else criticized PA President Mahmoud Abbas on her Facebook page, calling him a traitor and suggesting he resign. Abdul-Khalik is not the only Arab arrested recently for Facebook page activity, at least three others have recently been picked up for daring to criticize members of the government.
In September, the director of Radio Bethlehem 2000, George Canawati, was arrested for posting on his Facebook page criticism of the Bethlehem Health Department. Last month the PA judicial and executive authorities determined Canawati will be tried for defamation – a crime punishable by up to two years in prison – in the Magistrate Court of Bethlehem City. The trial was recently adjourned until September.
Altogether, nine journalists have been arrested in recent weeks for exposing corruption or making critical remarks about the PA leadership on Facebook, and many others have been summoned for interrogation. When Facebook postings expose government critics to censure, you can be sure that no one will risk filing bona fide media reports about the topic.
But just as frightening as Arab Palestinian bloggers and journalists being arrested for posting on their Facebook pages is the steady drumbeat of pressure that is leading to a decrease in coverage by western journalists who, presumably, are not as vulnerable to the capricious selections for punishment designed to suppress criticism of the ruling regime.
In addition to whispered discussions being heard in Ramallah about the “Facebook Police” are the directives issued to western journalists to focus their reporting on “Israel’s ‘occupation’” and refrain from prying into alleged corruption committed by PA officials, because “nothing else is newsworthy and nothing else should be reported.”
Some western journalists have been warned not to work with Arabic speaking reporters who fail to toe the “All-Occupation, All The Time” reporting. This is how the PA controls not only their own media outlets, but those western outlets. All too many simply play along rather than stand up for press and speech freedoms and possibly risk losing access. For those journalists who behave and report primarily about the occupation, the rewards are access to senior officials. Senior PA officials told Arab Israeli journalist abu Toameh, “Even the Jews at Haaretz behave themselves and for that they are rewarded with interviews of PA President Mahmoud Abbas.”
It is not only individual journalists who are being intimidated, but entire news sites critical of the PA have been blocked on the internet. A report in late April revealed that several websites which had reported on corruption within the PA were blocked, including Inlight Press, which had revealed that the PA had been monitoring the phones of Mahmoud Abbas’s opponents.
What’s more, in May, the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, a vehicle that is supposed to act as a union to defend the rights of its members, actually began punishing Arab Palestinian journalists for meeting and cooperating with Israeli colleagues in a series of joint seminars that were held in Europe. The goal of those seminars was to promote freedom of expression and increase cooperation. The PJS is affiliated with the PA and is dominated by Fatah, the party of Abbas, and reports directly to the President’s office in Ramallah. Those who violate the will of the Syndicate, which is to sing from the hymnal of PA devotion and praise for Abbas, are threatened with expulsion from the Syndicate and a concomitant boycott by all PA newspapers and other Palestinian media outlets.
It is ironic that the apparent increase in number and breadth of intimidation and harassment is taking place at the same time that the Palestinian Authority has been criticizing Israel for reviewing emails of those seeking to enter Israel to determine whether the travelers may pose security threats. The ubiquitous complaints about the Israeli arrest and detention of Arab journalists rarely reveals that while those detained may be, at least incidentally, journalists, the reason for the detentions are threats to security, not the expressions of opinion, and certainly not criticism of Israeli government officials. After all, it’s not like the muzzling of Arab “truthtellers” would prevent bad press for the Israeli government – you can buy a copy of Haaretz for that any day of the week, or subscribe to the endless press releases issued by the many NGOs funded by European governments, all of which are uniformly hostile to the Jewish state.
So thirty years on, Khaled abu Toameh finds that the path he took away from censorship seems to have doubled back on itself. Rather than walking firmly on the precious path of western iconic freedoms of an unfettered press and uncensored speech, abu Toameh is finding that that road is rotting out beneath his feet. This rare truth-telling journalist is finding it increasingly harder to report the corruption and lack of freedoms in the PA, and as a result our news world is becoming a quieter, but certainly not a better, place. On his own Facebook Page abu Toameh posted this silent cri de coeur: “A campaign of intimidation, harassment, pressure, threats and boycotts has made it impossible for an Arab journalist to work in the Palestinian Authority-controlled territories.”
Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the president of Z STREET, a pro-Israel, pro-truth organization, and chair of the executive committee of the National Conference on Jewish Affairs