In Gaza, authorities crack down on freedom of speech

In Gaza, authorities crack down on freedom of speech
Comment: Authorities in both Gaza and the West Bank are attempting to silence the critical voices of activists and journalists, writes Victoria Schneider.
7 min read
13 Nov, 2017
Monitoring and persecuting journalists on social media is nothing new [Anadolu]
This July, Gazan journalist and activist Amer Balousha published a post on Facebook in which he wondered whether his leaders' mothers also have to sleep on the floor in order to cool themselves down in the unbearable summer heat. 

Or, he wondered, do they have access to air conditioning - an unthinkable luxury for most Gazans who only have between two and four hours of electricity per day.

The post expressed the frustration many Palestinians feel about the disastrous humanitarian consequences of the quarrel between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and the de-facto government of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. And of course, the ongoing blockade by Israel and Egypt.

Soon Balousha received a private message on Facebook from someone calling himself 'Abu Khaled', telling him to delete the post. "Focus on your own life, it's better for you. And stop this stupidity."

When Balousha didn't respond, Abu Khaled closed communication with: "It seems like the respect I am showing you doesn't work with you."

A few days later the 26-year old was called to appear at Hamas' Internal Security, where he was detained and interrogated. He returned only weeks later, after signing a pledge to not talk about the incident on social media or to the media.

Balousha had little choice but to obey (at least for the moment). It was the third time he had been arrested in 2017, for speaking out against Hamas, who has been controlling Gaza since 2006 with an ever tightening grip. In recent times, the movement has increasingly targeted journalists and activists critical of its politics, using social media as a new surveillance mechanism.

Balousha's case is one of more than a dozen this year and illustrates a worrying trend inside the Occupied Palestinian Territories: Authorities in both Gaza and the West Bank are attempting to silence critical voices.

In Gaza, Hamas is using arbitrary arrests, detentions, interrogations and physical harassment to gag dissidents. Balousha was forced to unlock his social media accounts, his phone was seized, and he is still awaiting his trial, for a crime called "Misuse of Technology", which doesn't exist under Palestinian law.

In recent times, Hamas has increasingly targeted journalists and activists critical of its politics, using social media as a new surveillance mechanism

The authorities act with impunity because no one is holding them accountable for persecuting journalists without any legal framework. 

As a result of the deteriorating state of freedom of expression, reporting the reality in Gaza has become increasingly difficult for journalists both inside and outside.

For people inside there is no one to turn to: With all borders sealed, exile is not an option; the Palestinian Authority has no say in Gaza (and does not treat its citizens much better) and Israeli Forces gladly uses anything critical of Hamas as an argument to justify the siege of Gaza.

It's a trap.

But even for foreign journalists, reporting on the matter bears risks, as Hamas could ban them from entering the Strip. More dangerous, however, is that their colleagues, sources and friends inside Gaza could be harmed as a result of their critical reporting.

Read more:  Nothing to report here: Israel's persecution of Palestinian journalists

Hamas' intelligence keeps a close eye on foreigners and who they work with. They know who knows whom, and with the siege and the small size of Gaza, 42km long and 8-12km wide, hiding or fleeing is impossible.

Logically, one becomes more careful.

In 2015, Mada, the Center for Development and Media Freedom in Ramallah, already found that 80 percent of Palestinian journalists censor themselves and feel they cannot write what they want. This number has most definitely grown, especially with political tensions between the rival movements peaking this spring.

In Gaza, hopes have been high that everything will change with the unity deal between Fatah and Hamas.

But the situation for journalists in the West Bank does not seem much different. The PA also does not hesitate to go after critical voices, or those not affiliated with the movement. Journalists are profiled by their political affiliation (or the affiliation the authorities suspect them of having), and risk persecution based on "whose side they're on".

According to Mada's numbers, the first six months of this year were particularly bad, mostly resulting from a new law that was passed.

Around the same time Amer Balousha was detained for his Facebook post, the PA passed the "Cyber Crimes Law", which allows the government to persecute anyone suspected of "violating the public order and morals". Those accused of doing so "[will] be sentenced to prison for a period of no less than five years".

The law caused shock among civil society organisations and journalists, and rightly so: With six reporters arrested retrospectively and 26 websites shut down, it is a slap in the face of anyone exercising freedom of expression.

Not that monitoring and persecuting journalists on social media is new. Israel, Hamas and the PA have been doing it for years (the number of often far more severe violations by Israeli Forces has been at more than 120 in six months for years).

Balousha was forced to unlock his social media accounts, his phone was seized, and he is still awaiting his trial

What is new is that "the PA are officialising their actions against free speech", said Ahmad Melhem, a journalist for Wattane and Al-Monitor, who I spoke to in Ramallah.

They are building the infrastructure to silence critics.

Although Melhem insisted that he and his fellow journalists will not shut up, the new law shows that more obstacles are getting in the way of free speech.

Some journalists face serious repercussions for their work.

Take Jihad Barakat, for instance, a journalist for Palestine TV who was arrested and detained by the PA this July after filming the Israeli military searching the Palestinian prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, at a checkpoint.

After days of detention, Barakat was charged with "being present in suspicious circumstances" - a crime that, just like Balousha's, lacks any legal basis.

Knowing that eyes are on him, Barakat says that with the new law he now thinks twice before he puts anything on Facebook.

He is not alone. A Ramallah-based journalist who asked to remain anonymous, admitted that there are many things she wouldn't write from within Palestine, while she would feel safe to write them from elsewhere. Her colleague, a political reporter, said he rarely uses his real name when covering current affairs.

The new law shows that more obstacles are getting in the way of free speech

Palestinian journalists find themselves in a battle with many frontiers: There is Israel, whose military has been using tear gas, chemically treated water and rubber bullets against them, detains and arrests them without charge and often illegitimises their free movement.

"I can die and no one will even say a word. No one would help me," Nebal Farakh, a TV journalist, said, and she may be right. Israel, the guard of the "prison" that Palestinian journalists are locked in, acts with full impunity.

But then there is the internal frontier where they find themselves in a cat and mouse game: Any critique of their leaders puts them into danger, and it is the very body that should be offering protection - their governments - that surveils and persecutes.

Already, for most Palestinians, the idea of a normal life is a dream, especially those locked in in Gaza. But the developments described here threaten the resilience of those who have committed themselves to bringing change to the Palestinian people through information. Because it has become a matter of life and death.

Victoria Schneider is a freelance writer reporting from the Middle East and Subsaharan Africa. She was a fellow of the Tow Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism in New York and has published with AlJazeera, the Guardian, and many others. 

Follow her on Twitter: @vic_schneider

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.