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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Freedom of the Press, PA-style

From The Guardian:
An independent West Bank journalist detained for five days by Palestinian security forces after broadcasting a news item relating to frictions within the ruling Fatah party has questioned the extent to which freedom of speech is permitted by the Palestinian Authority.

George Canawati of Radio Bethlehem was held in an office at the city's general intelligence service headquarters over the Muslim holiday of Eid last month, according to an account he has given to the Guardian. He was provided with a mattress to sleep on, and food, but was given no explanation for his continued detention beyond an initial three-hour interrogation.

On 15 November at around 2pm, Radio Bethlehem broadcast a short item saying that Mohamed Dahlan, a senior Fatah figure, had played a recording made on a mobile phone of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to some members of Fatah's central committee. According to Canawati's report, the recording was of Abbas saying he wanted a Palestinian state regardless of whether it was inside or outside the wall – meaning the separation barrier Israel has constructed, much of it on Palestinian land.

Canawati – who has not heard the recording himself – based his report on a source within Fatah's central committee. "I confirmed the news from a credible person and that is enough for me to publish a report," Canawati said. The source was "someone I trust", he added.

...Shortly after Canawati's report was broadcast, he received a visit from the intelligence services. He was told to close down the radio station, and to accompany the official for questioning. "I was told it would be for 10 minutes. It took me five days," he said.

Canawati was questioned about the source of his story. "They treated me really good, they didn't put pressure on me. After three hours they told me to call the radio station to resume broadcasting. I was expecting to be released."

He had given his interrogators all the information they needed, including the name of his source. "I told them exactly what happened, I didn't know why they were keeping me," he said. He was eventually released on 19 November.

"I'm not confident any more that we have freedom of speech. Our prime minister [Salam Fayyad] is always preaching that the sky's the limit for freedom for journalists. From what happened to me, my experience, that is a false slogan. I really believed it until this happened."
It is interesting that the report that got him arrested said that Abbas would be willing to compromise. Besides the obvious issue of the PA clamping down on embarrassing reports, and of a journalist who willingly gives up his sources, the question is whether Abbas really said that statement or if it is part of an internal Fatah smear campaign against him?