No free speech in Palestine: PA arrests journalist, internationally-renowned peace activist for Facebook posts

Palestinian forces on Monday evening arrested Palestinian peace activist Issa Amro for a Facebook post he published condemning the Palestinian Authority (PA) for detaining journalist and radio director Ayman Quwasmeh the day previously.

Quwasmeh was detained by the PA days after Israeli forces raided and shut down al-Hurriyeh Radio (Freedom Radio) in Hebron on accusations of “incitement.” Immediately following the forced closure of the station, Quwasmeh took to social media, blasting the PA for being unable to protect its citizens, and calling for Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hebron Mayor Kamel Hmeid to resign.

“This is happening in front of you, my message to President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Rami al-Hamdallah, Hebron Governor Kamel Hmeid, and other officials, is to submit their resignations, and stay at home, because they are unable to protect the media in Palestine…,” his statement read, translated into English by the International Middle East Media Center. “This media network is in an area that is under the complete control of the Palestinian Authority, yet, they remain silent, and cannot protect us. We have nothing to do with incitement. We try to deliver the message of the simple people in need, to the officials. We try to be the voice of the voiceless, and that is why we keep getting attacked and harassed.”

Three days after the post was published, PA forces showed up to arrest Quwasmeh.

Hearing of the arrest, Amro took to social media himself to condemn the detention. He called for the media to put a special focus on Quwasmeh’s arrest and suggested an official complaint against the PA be taken to “the Europeans.”

“A journalist was threatened by members of security services on the back of the news of the arrest of Ayman al-Qawasmi,” part of Amro’s post read. “I’m asking all journalists to publish the news, it’s not a rumor, it’s true news. Secondly, if any journalist is facing the same situation, please talk or get in touch with me, we are going to document all violations of the law and tell the Europeans about it.”

According to a press release published by Amro’s organization Youth Against Settlements (YAS), he was initially called in for an interview with the PA over the post, but was subsequently arrested during the meeting.

Locals seem to think the threat of taking the case abroad was the red line Amro crossed in the eyes of the PA. Amro, a very well connected activist based in Hebron, has given speeches on behalf of Palestine the United Nations and other well-respected international institutions.

Immediately after Amro’s arrest, Amnesty International published a press release calling for the PA to “immediately and unconditionally” release Amro.

“It is outrageous that a prominent human rights defender has been arrested simply for voicing his opinion online. Criticizing the authorities should not be a criminal offence. Issa Amro’s arrest is the latest evidence that the Palestinian authorities are determined to continue with their repressive campaign against free speech,” Magdalena Mughrabi, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said.

“We have seen an alarming escalation in the Palestinian authorities’ clampdown on freedom of expression in recent months. Instead of continuing to step up their efforts to quash dissenting voices, the Palestinian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release Issa Amro and stop harassing and intimidating activists and others for daring to speak their minds freely,” Mughrabi continued, referring to the escalating crackdown on freedom of speech and press under the PA.

In July via Presidential Decree, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas passed the “Electronic Crimes Law,” which law allows for heavy fines and detentions of anyone critical of the PA online — including journalists and whistleblowers.

Amnesty documented that the law is also open to be used against regular citizens posting on social media, or simply retweeting news or the posts of others.

Under the new law, anyone charged with breaking the legislation by posting something which could be deemed a disturbance to “public order,” “national unity” or “social peace” could be sentenced to imprisonment and up to 15 years hard labor, according to Amnesty.

According to the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA), the law is “a flagrant violation of the principle of the right to privacy” promised by Palestinian Basic Law Article No. 32, which guarantees that “any violation of any personal freedom, of the sanctity of the private life of human beings, or of any of the rights or liberties that have been guaranteed by law or by this Basic Law shall be considered a crime.”

In addition, Palestine has agreed to the terms of several international conventions which guarantee and protect freedom of opinion and expression, of which the “Electronic Crimes Law” is in violation, foremost of which is “the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” according to MADA.

Due to these facts, MADA, similar to Amro, called for Member States of the convention to “take all legislative or other measures in line with international standards,” against the new law as well as the PA’s actions.

In July at least ten journalists were summoned by the PA for interrogation, while in August they arrested at least six journalists. In addition, the PA has closed down or blocked access to at least 29 websites, most of which are the websites of news publications.

In addition to Quwasmeh’s criticism against the PA that sparked the arrests of himself and Amro, Quwasmeh also blasted Israel for closing the radio station, a common practice by Israeli forces who have closed down more than a dozen news agencies, publishers and radio stations since its crackdown on “incitement” starting in the fall of 2015.

“We are not surprised by his savage behavior of the Israeli army, and its collaborators; they want to silence us; they are all conspiring against us,” he wrote, prior to his arrest by the PA. “If helping the people and aiding them is considered incitement, then we are proud of it. Our main role is to deliver the message and appeals of the ordinary people to the officials. As for incitement, let them show us one instance of incitement; all our programming is archived, and we have nothing to hide.”

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