Letters   |   Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory

Attacks, arrests, legislation restrict Israeli press freedom

January 18, 2012

Hon. Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister of Israel
3 Kaplan St.
P.O.B. 187
Kiryat Ben-Gurion
Jerusalem 91919
Israel

Via facsimile +972-2-5664838

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu,

The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by ongoing attacks on and detention of journalists in the Occupied Palestinian Territories as well as by a recent series of developments that restrict freedom of the press in Israel. Physical attacks, arrests, and other restrictions are creating an environment that undermines the vitality of the media, a key component of Israel's democracy.

We have documented a list of physical attacks on journalists working in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the continued imprisonment of five Palestinian journalists in Israeli administrative detention without charge. In the appendix to this letter, CPJ details attacks against Palestinian, Israeli, and foreign journalists since November 2011, which we ask your government to thoroughly investigate. In addition, we call on you to immediately release or charge all imprisoned journalists. In a December visit to your country, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Frank La Rue, cited Israel for several violations, including arbitrary arrests and overnight detentions of journalists.

Within Israel, CPJ is particularly concerned by the proposal of an amendment to the 1965 Defamation Act that would increase six-fold the financial liability for journalists in cases where the plaintiff does not prove that he or she has suffered harm. The bill, which passed the first of three required readings in the Knesset in November, would increase this amount from 50,000 shekels (US$12,987) to 300,000 shekels (US$77,936). The bill refers to "compensation," but since no damages need to be proven, this is clearly a fine.

The bill also requires the media to issue the plaintiff's full response to allegedly defamatory material, and - despite no proof of harm -- if the complainant is not given an appropriate opportunity to respond, the court can order a fine of up to 1.5 million shekels (US$400,000). The bill would extend these fines to bloggers and users of social media.

Several Israeli journalists have expressed concern to CPJ that the passage of this amendment would discourage critical or investigative writing. We urge your government to withdraw the bill from further consideration.

We are also alarmed that the Israeli government appears to be selectively enforcing tax and other regulations for broadcasters. On December 12 your government rejected a request by television Channel 10 to postpone its outstanding debt payments for one year. Unless the broadcaster pays 60 million shekels (US$11 million) by the end of January, it will be shut down. It appears that private Channel 10, which is known for its investigative reporting and critical commentaries, is being unfairly singled out since another broadcaster, the public station Channel 1, was relieved of its debt of 150 million shekels (US$39 million) by a Knesset vote on December 27. Even though Channel 10 is only asking for a postponement of its debt, it was refused, while Channel 1 was relieved of its debt obligations.

CPJ is also disturbed that Israeli police forced a halt to Hebrew broadcasts by the Israeli-Palestinian Radio All for Peace since November, alleging that it was operating without a license. According to the station's executive director, Maysa Baransi, police summoned business manager Mossi Raz for questioning on November 17 and instructed him to shut down the station's FM Hebrew frequency. Baransi said the police threatened Raz with jail time if he didn't comply, and also threatened to raid the broadcaster's studios and confiscate its equipment. Baransi holds that this action is unwarranted since the station's transmissions are based in Ramallah and under the Palestinian Authority's remit. Since the station began operating in 2003, it has never had an issue with its license, she said. CPJ notes that All for Peace will have its first hearing on this case in the Supreme Court on January 19.

These developments come on the heels of an anti-boycott law passed in July, under which any media report deemed by authorities to be supportive of a campaign to pressure Israel via boycott is a civil offense punishable with excessive fines. As with the defamation amendment, the plaintiff need not prove to have suffered any harm in order to win financial damages.

We urge you to consider these issues as a matter of urgency. Israel's society has been enriched by a high level of public debate, and the actions taken by your government undermine this tradition. We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director



Recent attacks on journalists in Israel documented by CPJ:

  • CPJ has documented the arrest and continued imprisonment without charge of four Palestinian journalists in Israeli administrative detention: Walid Khalid Harb, director of the Gaza-based Falastin, imprisoned on May 8; Nawaf al-Amer, satellite program coordinator for London-based Al-Quds television, imprisoned on June 28; Amer Abu Arafa, a correspondent for the Gaza-based Shihab News Agency, imprisoned on August 21; and Raed al-Sharif, a host on Radio Marah, imprisoned on November 14.

  • Most recently, Amin Abu Wardeh, a journalist who works for the Palestinian News Network (PNN) and UAE-based daily Al-Khaleej, was arrested by Israeli security forces on December 28 at his home in Nablus in the West Bank, PNN and independent Bethlehem-based Ma'an News Agency reported. He is being held in al-Ramlah prison, but no charges against him have been disclosed. On January 12, Israeli security forces raided Abu Wardeh's house at 3:30 a.m., confiscating his computer and mobile phone, PNN reported.

  • Brendan Work, an American editor for the Palestinian News Network, was denied entry into the West Bank by Israeli immigration authorities on December 17 after returning from Jordan to renew his visa, PNN reported. PNN said it believes the refusal of entry is linked to Work's role at the news organization.

  • Two journalists were attacked while covering weekly anti-settlement demonstrations in the West Bank town of Bil'in: Ali Hamdan Abu Rahma, a freelance photojournalist, suffered light injuries from tear gas and rubber bullets shot into the crowd by Israeli soldiers on December 9, according to  local and regional news reports and press freedom groups; and Walid Maamun, a cameraman for Al-Jazeera English, was injured when security forces fired a tear gas canister directly at his hand on December 2, according to local and regional news reports and press freedom groups. Journalists have regularly been attacked while covering weekly demonstrations in Bil'in.

  • Two journalists were attacked while covering weekly anti-settlement demonstrations in the town of Nabi Saleh, west of Ramallah: Nagib Farawana, a cameraman for the Palestinian Authority-run Palestine TV, was injured in the stomach by a rubber bullet shot by Israeli soldiers on December 9, according to local and regional news reports. A group of soldiers prevented him and other journalists from reaching the demonstration site and taking pictures. Majdi Mohammed Shteih, a photojournalist for the Associated Press, was briefly arrested by Israeli soldiers on December 2, and on December 16 Shteih was injured at the Nabi Saleh weekly demonstration after being fired at by security forces with a tear gas canister shot directly at his leg, regional and foreign news outlets reported.

  • Lynsey Addario, a Pulitzer prize-winning photographer for The New York Times, was forced through an X-ray machine in late October at the Erez crossing after alerting officials that she was pregnant, the newspaper reported. She complained to the Defense Ministry that she was forced through the machine three times as soldiers "watched and laughed from above." She said she was then taken into a room and ordered by a female worker to strip down to her underwear and that she had been treated with "blatant cruelty." Although the Defense Ministry issued an apology on November 28, CPJ research shows that this is not an isolated incident.

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