Violations of freedom of expression continue unabated during COVID-19 pandemic
Defunding is one of the strategies used by Israel in its attempt to restrict the work of Palestinian civil society groups. Several organisations that engage in monitoring, documenting and reporting human rights violations by Israel have previously faced risks of having their funds cut. In this regard, in late December 2019 the new funding terms introduced by the European Union became a key concern for civil society groups in Palestine as it required Palestinian institutions to ensure that none of the beneficiaries of their projects or programmes are affiliated with groups listed as terrorist organisations by the bloc.
When the new criterion was introduced, the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organisations (PNGO) network rejected the terms in a letter signed by 134 Palestinian NGOs in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem. A campaign to reject conditional funding was also launched by civil society groups.
On 30th March 2020, the European Union (EU) sent an official “clarification letter” to the Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO) about its funding of Palestinian NGOs. In its letter, the EU reiterates its longstanding support “of the Palestinian people in their quest for freedom, independence and self-determination,” clarifying that:
“The EU fully respects the right of Palestinians to use all means allowed under International law and relevant conventions to achieve a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in line with international agreed principles.”
As the letter clarifies, contrary to claims promoted by ongoing misinformation campaigns, PNGO and Palestinian NGOs funded by the EU are thus not expected to endorse the EU’s list of restrictive measures, which mistakenly includes several Palestinian political factions. Palestinian NGOs are rather expected not to transfer EU funds to these political groups.
In response to domestic violence taking place during COVID-19, intersectional feminist organisation Tal3at organised a balcony protest on 20th April 2020. Videos show Palestinians banging on pots and pans or hanging signs on their balconies to show solidarity with victims of violence. The protest saw participation from women across Palestine and the Palestinian diaspora. The organisation reports that 11 women have been killed in 2020, with six of them being murdered during the lockdown.
“Because of this current crisis and because of the escalation of [gender-based] violence and femicide, we have to find a way to protest even if we can’t leave our homes and take to the streets to demonstrate. We wanted to create noise amid the silence—it is not just silence due to the fact that there are no people in the streets, but it is also [a general] silence when it comes to violence against women and femicide,”- spokesperson of Tal3at, Shatha Shiekh Yousef.
As previously covered by the Monitor, in October 2019, the Ramallah Magistrate’s Court issued a decision to block 49 Palestinian websites under the pretext that they published pictures, articles and phrases that "threaten national security, civil peace, disturb public order and public morals and stir up Palestinian public opinion”. This decision was issued in accordance with Article 39, paragraph 2, of the Cybercrime Decree Law No. 10 of 2018. Given that the six-month period of this blockade has lapsed, Mada Center called upon the owners of the 49 sites that have been blocked to contact the Internet service providers in order to unblock their websites.
“MADA”: The Internet service providers must stop the blocking of 49 websites as the duration of the decision has ended.— MADA Center (@madacenterps) April 26, 2020
To read more information: https://t.co/lbQg45MJ55 #mada #Palestine #media #journalism #violation
Enhancing online activism and access to websites is more important given that, as in many other parts of the world, measures against the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have been implemented in Palestine. However, an analysis prepared by the 7amleh, The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media on Palestinian digital rights, showed on the contrary that there is a decline in the enjoyment of rights, in many instances due to practices of the Israeli occupation forces.
The 2019 annual report shows:
- Israeli surveillance technologies were discovered to be illegally developed for use on Palestinians and exported worldwide.
- The Israeli government is utilising digital smear campaign tactics to delegitimise Palestinian human rights organisations in coordination with Israeli-supporting non-state actors.
- Palestinian authorities and Hamas continue to suppress critical political expression and public assembly, arresting thousands of people each year.
- Google Maps, PayPal, Airbnb and other tech companies continue to violate international law and profit from operating in illegal Israeli settlements.
- In response to increasing digital rights violations, Palestinians are resorting to self-censorship. In addition, the voices of youth, women and members of the queer community are increasingly oppressed.
#HashtagPalestine - @7amleh 's Annual Review of #Palestinian #DigitalRightshttps://t.co/9yJenhF5AG pic.twitter.com/cp4q4Sb3tl— 7amleh حملة (@7amleh) April 26, 2020
On the other hand, the measures imposed to address COVID-19 in Palestine and the declaration of a state of emergency, which has now been extended to 5th June 2020, further targets digital rights. A position paper by 7amleh shows that emergency measures target digital rights and include broad terms which relate to criminalisation and punishment, with no legal provisions, safeguards or measurable standards.
Paragraph (3) of Article (3) of the State of Emergency Law by Decree stipulates:
“It is prohibited for anyone other than those legally authorised to do so, to issue any statements or declarations, or spread news related to the state of emergency that are not based on an official source, in any form. This applies to all social media, written, audio, and visual. Anyone who violates this, shall be punished with detention for a period not exceeding one year and pay a financial fine not less than two thousand dinars and not more than five thousand dinars or its equivalent of the currency.”
During the reporting period, the number of in-person cases of violations were relatively fewer, as noted by the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms "MADA", due to restrictions imposed under the state of emergency. In addition, it is also due to the lack of field activities, during which Israeli occupation forces often suppress and prevent journalists and media outlets from covering them. Cases noted during the reporting period include:
- On 11th April 2020, the administration of the Palestinian News and Information Agency "WAFA" issued a decision referring two of its journalists, Jaafar Sadaqa and Rami Samara, to an investigation committee after the end of the emergency period. In addition, according to the official letter that Sadaqa and Samara received, their salaries would be frozen on the pretext of violating the state of emergency. However, the two journalists believe that it is related to their Facebook posts.
- On 25th April 2020, security forces in Gaza prevented a Palestine TV crew from conducting interviews with citizens for a news report on the atmosphere in the month of Ramadan in the Strip due to the coronavirus pandemic. They also took the crew to the investigation headquarters and detained them for several hours, where they were forced to sign a pledge to refrain from working in the field without prior permission before they were released.
- On 26th April 2020, members of the Preventive Security Service detained the two journalists - Youssef Hassasna (42 years old) and Haitham Warasna (29 years old) - of the Jana Media Production Company. After searching their vehicle they were transferred to the agency’s headquarters in Yatta city, south of Hebron Governorate.
On 6th May 2020 Amnesty International issued a statement about the arbitrary detentions carried out by Fatah-led Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and the Hamas de facto administration in the Gaza Strip of those who were critical about the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
In the statement, Lawyers for Justice reports that there has been an increase in cases of politically motivated arrests in the West Bank since the outbreak of COVID-19. Ten individuals have been arrested by the Palestinian authorities in the West Bank since the beginning of March 2020 in relation to exercising rights of freedom of expression and association. Cases documented in the West Bank include:
- Zakaria Khuwaylid was arrested in April 2020 after criticising the Palestinian president’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Khuwaylid was charged with “defamation” under Article 191 of the 1960 Penal Code. He was released on 21st April 2020, after making a bail payment of 150 Jordanian dinars (US$210). Speaking on his detention conditions amid the pandemic, he told Amnesty International:
“After the interrogation ended, I was put in a room with three other prisoners. The room was small and very dirty and we were living with cockroaches. The toilet was very dirty and I was even afraid to take a shower in it. My arrest comes during a sensitive time when everyone is talking about the COVID-19 crisis, but the prison clearly did not adhere to any hygiene standards”.
- Hussam Khader was arrested in March 2020 after he criticised the Palestinian president in a Facebook post. However, this was not in relation to the COVID-19 crisis. On 1st March 2020 Khader criticised the President’s remarks which described a strike by the Palestinian Medical Association as “despicable”. He was charged with “insulting” the president under Article 188 of the 1960 Penal Code, but the charges were later dropped.
Cases documented in the Gaza strip include:
- On 13th March 2020 writer Abdullah Abu Sharkh was arrested at his home in Jabalia refugee camp and taken to a police station and interrogated for two hours about social media posts which were critical of Hamas authorities.He was charged with “spreading false news” and “misuse of technology” under, respectively, Article 62 and Article 262 of the 1963 Penal Code. He was released on 9th April 2020 without any explanation and it is unclear whether the charges against him remain. Authorities have arrested Sharkh on five other occasions for expressing critical opinion.
“I have the right to express my opinion as long as it’s not hurting others. This continued targeting is clearly an attack against my right to freely express myself and it must stop. All international human rights treaties grant me this right and I should not be prosecuted for practising it,” Abu Sharkh told Amnesty International.
- Cartoonist Ismael el-Bozom was arrested at his home on 20th March 2020. He was questioned about his political drawings and a Facebook post where he called for the release of Abdullah Abu Sharkh (see above). According to el-Bozom, he has been arrested five times since 2017. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned the cartoonist’s arrest.
“Security forces should immediately stop harassing Ismael el-Bozom and ensure that cartoonists and journalists can do their jobs freely, regardless of their political stances,” - CPJ Middle East and North Africa Representative Ignacio Miguel Delgado.
- On 9th April 2020, Rami Aman was arrested by officers after he organised a video call with Israeli persons to discuss the issues around life in Gaza in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a joint statement issued on 14th May 2020, Palestine Digital Rights Coalition, Palestinian Human Rights Organisations Council and Palestinian Non-Governmental Organisations Network raised their concerns on the appointment of the former General Director of the Israeli Ministry of Justice, Emi Palmor, to Facebook’s Oversight Board. The organisations noted the already existing challenges on digital platforms for Palestinian civil society and ongoing Israeli smear and delegitimisation campaigns that they face for their human rights work, both online and offline. They raised concerns regarding the selection ofEmi Palmor, as under her leadership there were several attempts to censor journalists and Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) because their comments were considered ‘politically undesirable.’ Thus, her appointment would further shrink the space for freedom of expression online and the protection of human rights.
Civic Space Developments