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Rights group: Palestinian forces abuse journalists

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DANIEL ESTRIN | April 6, 2011 08:38 AM EST | AP

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JERUSALEM — A leading human rights group on Wednesday criticized Palestinian security forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for what it said was an increase in attacks on local journalists, including arbitrary detentions and abuse.

A report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch said that over the past two years, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has stepped up harassment of journalists investigating corruption or seen to be supporters of the rival Hamas militant group. The pressure tactics by the Western-backed government have led to more self-censorship among local reporters, the group also said.

The report focused on the West Bank, documenting seven cases of abuse there. But it also included two cases in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip – where reported abuses against journalists by Hamas have been less frequent but nevertheless harsh, according to HRW. It said abuse by Hamas, as well as by Israeli security forces, would be the focus of future reporting.

"Palestinian security forces are becoming notorious for assaulting and intimidating journalists who are just trying to do their jobs," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Both the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza need to end these blatant attacks on free expression."

Speaking to reporters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Stork said the abuses stretched beyond journalists. "Many other citizens in the West Bank, in Gaza, who are critics or who are perceived to be critics of the government or of the authorities are coming to face the same treatment," he said.

The group urged international donors to demand the Palestinian Authority – which receives hundreds of millions of dollars in Western support each year – stop the practice as a condition for receiving aid.

Adnan Dameiri, a spokesman for the security forces in the West Bank, said the cases were aberrations, "individual behavior from certain members in the security forces" and that they do not reflect a "systematic policy of the Palestinian Authority against journalists."

A Hamas official in Gaza said instances of abuse were mistakes, and those responsible have been punished. "The government absolutely rejects any harassment committed against the media," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

HRW cited a 2010 report by the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms, which found a 45 percent increase over the previous year in physical attacks, arrests, confiscation of equipment and other violations against journalists. The independent, nonprofit group recorded 79 cases of journalist abuse by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

In one case documented by Human Rights Watch, freelance journalist and filmmaker Muhannad Salahat was arrested by Palestinian Authority and held without charge on two occasions in early 2010.

During 24 days in custody, he was interrogated about his documentaries and asked to sign a document saying he belonged to a Facebook group that included discussions of governmental corruption. He was then told that was the basis of the case to be brought against him. He was later released.

Another freelance journalist, Khalid Amayreh, said he has been repeatedly detained by Palestinian Authority security since reporting about torture in West Bank prisons and criticizing the suppression of protests against Israel's 2009 military offensive in Gaza. In one instance, HRW said, he was put in solitary confinement and forced to sleep next to a toilet.

The abuse takes place "in the context of virtual impunity" for security officials, the report said. And while it is not necessarily ordered by Palestinian leaders, "the utter failure of the PA leadership to address the prevailing culture of impunity for such abuses suggests that they reflect government policy," HRW said.

Hamas' security services in the Gaza Strip have also intimidated journalists, calling in reporters to warn them their coverage was slanted and threatening punishment, the report said.

It also noted a recent wave of crackdowns on journalists who cover protests in Gaza that urge the rival Palestinian governments to reconcile. In one instance, Hamas agents threatened to throw a journalist out of a window, HRW said.

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Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.