News | Israel - Palestine / Jordan “There Is No Freedom of Expression in Palestine”

After the killing of Nizar Banat, Palestinian journalists face a renewed climate of repression


Demonstrators carry posters with pictures of outspoken PA critic Nizar Banat during a rally protesting his death in Ramallah, 17 July 2021. Photo: picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Nasser Nasser

Tensions between demonstrators and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have reached a peak after Nizar Banat, a well-known political activist, died following his arrest by the PA’s security forces in Hebron in late June. As a former Fatah member and independent electoral candidate, Banat had accused the PA of corruption and questioned the cancellation of the Palestinian elections in May 2021. Since his killing, peaceful demonstrations have taken place all over the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The PA apparatus has responded with a brutal crackdown, with plainclothes security forces assaulting and arresting protesters arbitrarily. Palestinian and international press have also been attacked during their work and had their equipment confiscated. In response, a number of Palestinian journalists issued a call to the United Nations to ensure their safety in the country.

Sari Harb, a Programme Manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Regional Office for Palestine and Jordan in Ramallah, spoke with Naela Khalil of The New Arab about the recent events and the political climate in which Palestinian journalists work.

SH: Can you describe the atmosphere for journalists under the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli occupation?

NK: Palestinian journalists live under the utmost levels of constant stress. The Israeli occupation targets journalists while they cover the news. It does so either directly by assault, gunfire, tear gas, or arrest, or by preventing them from arriving at the location.

In the territories under the governance of the Palestinian Authority, the situation is similar. Direct assaults against journalists take place, and physical violence occurs especially if the event being covered is opposed to the PA. Journalists are also constantly summoned for interrogation by the authorities or are directly arrested.

Naela Khalil works as the bureau chief of The New Arab’s Arabic edition in Ramallah.

The new thing we saw in the demonstrations against the killing of Nizar Banat is the much higher degree of violence. This included assaults of journalists on the premises of the security forces, away from cameras. Nevertheless, these practices are still a part of the broader systematic aggression against journalists and their work.

All of this comes at the same time as Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh’s promises to put an end to assaults against journalists. He’s either being purposefully misleading or has no power whatsoever over the security apparatus.

You covered the recent protests following the killing of Nizar Banat. What kind of obstacles did you encounter?

Prior to the most recent events, we had concluded that the greatest challenge facing Palestinian journalists was the right to access information. For example, when news of the Pfizer vaccine deal was leaked, we could not find out who issued the decision or who the persons behind it were.

Instead of passing a law to guarantee our right to information (for which we have been struggling for 20 years), the PA issued the “Cybercrime Law” in 2018 specifically designed to restrict the activity of Palestinian journalists and activists. Under the pretext of fighting cybercrime, the law allows journalists and activists to be persecuted for anything they publish on social media. In other words, any official who doesn’t like something published about them can use the law to bring a journalist to court. The law thus aims to defame journalists and restrict their work.

After the killing of Nizar Banat, access to any information related to the event became impossible. This included crucial questions that journalists needed to ask, such as who made the decision to have Banat killed, or who the persons were who went to his house that night. What is more dangerous is that we cannot even cover the protests.

Recently, Fatah published something they referred to as a “list of shame” on their Facebook page. It listed the names of seven journalists, including me, who covered the events around Nizar’s killing. This type of targeting aims to incite the public against journalists and ruin their reputations. It also paves the way for physical assaults on them. Needless to say, no governmental body made any effort to respond to these threats or protect journalists.

The Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate (PJS) is supposed to protect the rights of journalists. What is its actual role?

The Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate issued a statement calling for the removal of the chief of police and a boycott of the Palestinian Authority, among other things. However, the statement was not posted on the Syndicate’s official website. I also know that their requests will not be taken into consideration.

The Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate would not dare to boycott the PA, because the Syndicate is actually subordinated to the PLO organizational structure dominated by Fatah. The person in charge of protecting freedoms at the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate is a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, which is the second-highest body in the Fatah movement. Also, the Head of the Journalists’ Syndicate, who was not elected but rather appointed following the resignation of his predecessor, previously nominated himself for the Fatah Revolutionary Council—although he did not succeed. How can you expect Fatah to stand against Fatah?

It was clear from the Syndicate’s statement that it couldn’t really do anything. It issued some statements, but we’ve known for many years that it is unable to solve crises in a radical manner. Knowing this has paved the way for all-out attacks against journalists. You never see such attacks against other syndicates or associations such as the Bar Association or the Doctors’ Association.

The security services may attack doctors and lawyers from time to time, but those professionals’ associations are so strong and solid that they could paralyze the country if they wanted to. For example, the Doctors’ Association could cripple the health care sector and the Bar Association could freeze the justice system, which is why the Palestinian Authority takes them seriously. Unfortunately, they do not give much importance to the Journalists’ Syndicate.

Is investigative journalism possible? Will you be able to carry out a journalistic investigation into the murder of Nizar Banat?

Absolutely. Some kind of investigative journalism is vital to cover things about Nizar that people did not know, as well as to expose the various threats against him prior to his death. After criticizing President Abbas for cancelling the legal council election in May, he contacted the European Parliament and asked them to push for elections. From that point onwards, the PA felt threatened by Nizar Banat, who expressed his views about the leadership openly through his videos.

The Israel-Palestinian security coordination, which dictates “security terms” as per the Oslo Accords, arrested and kidnapped Nizar Banat in the part of Hebron City under Israeli control known as “H2”. According to his family, Banat was convinced that he had been placed in the “red circle”, meaning that he sensed the PA might assassinate him. It is very rare that a Palestinian would say such a thing, yet clearly Nizar’s instincts were correct. It is assumed that high-ranking individuals may have leaked information to him that suggested he was going to be killed. Evidently, the decision was made to assassinate him. There was no court case, arrest, or imprisonment. This is what I understood from my conversation with Nizar Banat’s wife and family when I visited them.

Indeed, it is crucial to conduct more than one journalistic investigation into this matter, to dig into the details of how Banat was assassinated and whether there was a decision to do so. These questions cannot not be answered except through investigative journalism, with the use of pictures and written material. They should cover all the relevant parties and probe into all the details, including the security services, Fatah, the PA, the families, etc.

Why is the Palestinian media asking for international support?

In the four days of unrest following Banat’s death, we witnessed major violations and attacks against journalists. There had been attacks prior to this period, such as the beating and dragging of Palestinian journalists on the day of Bassel al-Araj’s trial, as well as the beatings and assaults by anonymous security elements dressed in civilian clothes, who also broke cameras and destroyed the phones of those documenting the protests calling for the PA to lift sanctions on Gaza.

However, the intense four days of ongoing brutal attacks after Nizar Banat’s death were unprecedented. Nizar was assassinated simply because he was a political dissident who expressed his views on video. He was not armed and was not part of any political organization. All journalists thus felt threatened, as Nizar was killed merely for expressing his opinions.

All journalists empathize with Nizar Banat and have major security concerns. The attacks began on Thursday, and got worse on Saturday and Sunday. On the following Monday, the prime minister spoke as if he came from a completely different place. He stated that “the freedom of opinion and expression is respected and safeguarded”. We felt like he was talking about another country! The violations and attacks against journalists and the harassment of women were captured on smartphones and shared in private chats. Nevertheless, the authorities tried to discredit the media.

Public opinion in general and journalists in particular understand that the first step to assassinating a person is to kill their morale. Indeed, the PA began to assassinate journalists morally. Therefore, we must call for international attention and protection because we are now in danger. We have been attacked in several ways: we were subjected to insults and offensive language, and were dragged and pushed around—not to mention the broken cameras, confiscation of mobile phones, harassment of young women, etc. We witnessed these attacks without hearing a single statement from a Palestinian official to stop them or deny the PA’s responsibility for them.

What will you do if you do not receive support from the international bodies you’re addressing?

So far, we have not received any official response. However, I think that the recent statement of the Human Rights Rapporteur responded to our calls for help in some ways. This was after we sent a letter to Mahmoud Abbas asking him to prevent the targeting of journalists and demonstrators.

I agree that it is insufficient to focus on journalists alone—since they are not the only targeted group. However, I see that the letter from the UN Human Rights Council urging it to stop these attacks was crucial, because it tells the Palestinian Authority, in other words, that we can see what you are doing, so please stop these crazy acts against those who speak up.

We want the PA and security services to honour the journalists who work diligently in service of the people, and whose efforts are crucial towards achieving a society that respects freedom of expression and opinion.