World Press Freedom Day

Embracing our Right to Free Expression
Date posted: May 02, 2007 By Joharah Baker for MIFTAH

May 3 marks World Press Freedom Day, originally created by the UN Commission of Human Rights in Resolution 1993/45 for the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. While this is a pressing issue in all parts of the world, including the so-called western democracies which boast about personal liberties, in Palestine the significance of World Press Day is manifold.

In Palestine, journalists, writers, reporters and photographers must consider two layers of obstructions to their own freedom of opinion and expression. For obvious reasons, the 40-year-old Israeli occupation must be considered the first and foremost obstacle to any personal, political or collective liberties of the Palestinians given its racist and oppressive nature.

For years, Palestinian journalists have suffered under this regime, which has not only impeded their ability to deliver quality work, but has constantly put them in danger. Palestinian journalists accredited by the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate are restricted to Palestinian Authority areas and cannot travel to Jerusalem or Israel without Israeli authorization. This means any story or “scoop” outside the jurisdictions of the PA must be reported on second-hand, either through Palestinian journalists allowed into these areas or via the foreign wire services. Ultimately, the quality of such reporting is seriously undermined, not because of any lack of competent journalists but because of geographic and political constraints.

Furthermore, Palestinian journalists have been imprisoned, shot at, wounded and killed while in the line of duty. In September 2002, Voice of Palestine journalist Issam Tilawi was shot in the back of the head and killed by an Israeli sniper in Ramallah while reporting on a demonstration there. Tilawi was the third journalist killed by Israeli fire in seven months. During that period, Italian journalist Raffaele Ciriello was also killed in Ramallah by Israeli troops and Imad Abu Zahra was killed in Jenin that July. According to the Palestine Monitor, 12 journalists were killed by Israeli fire while 295 were injured between 2000 and 2004.

According to Reporters Sans Frontiers’ annual 2006 country report on Israel, “Israeli soldiers discriminated against Arab journalists and abuses against them, whether they worked for local media or pan-Arab TV stations such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya. The Israeli army hounded, threatened, summoned and arrested them, sometimes without subsequent trial.”

According to a press release issued by RSF, Palestinian journalist Awad Rajoub, a reporter for Al Jazeera Satellite Channel was arrested and imprisoned for six months by Israeli authorities before being released in May, 2006 for lack of sufficient evidence against him. He was accused of “threatening state security.”

Needless to say, the ramifications of the Israeli occupation greatly hinder and oftentimes endanger the lives and work of Palestinian journalists, including being held up for hours at military checkpoints, denied entry into “closed military zones,” and being subjected to arrest, beating and killing.

Still, Palestinians’ freedom of opinion and expression are not only compromised by the Israeli occupation. Since the inception of the Palestinian Authority, and more precisely since incidents of anarchy and lawlessness have escalated in the Palestinian territories, the Gaza Strip in particular, Palestinian, Arab and foreign media outlets have been firebombed and ransacked and media figures have been subjected to attacks and kidnappings by militant Palestinian groups.
According to Reporters Sans Frontiers six journalists, mostly foreigners, were abducted and subsequently released throughout 2006 in the Gaza Strip. Since then, BBC correspondent Alan Johnston was kidnapped by an unknown Palestinian group on March 12, 2007 and is yet to be released.

Last month, Palestinian Legislative Council members called off a PLC session in Gaza after 40 Palestinian journalists and others protested Johnston’s abduction, demanding that the PA exert more efforts to find and release him. The protestors, who barred the legislators from entering the building, were attacked and beaten by Palestinian policemen and guards.

While the lawlessness and lack of respect for the rule of law that has reigned over the Palestinian territories in recent months no doubt plays a key role in the disrespect for journalists and the role of the media in general, it is not the only factor to be considered.
Arab and Palestinian culture and tradition are largely patriarchal and heavily rest on familial and factional affiliations. Consequently, complete freedom of expression and opinion are often perceived a threat to this structure. This is the case in many Arab regimes as well. Criticizing the ruling party, be it a monarchy, a “democracy,” dictatorship or, in our case, the PA or even a particular political faction, is seen as a challenge to this traditional patriarchal structure rather than a means by which to improve ourselves through examining our shortcomings.

In tandem with our struggle for liberation from the Israeli occupation, the Palestinians also need to liberate themselves from the conservative constraints of a patriarchal and narrow-minded mentality, which often dictates that constructive criticism and diversity of opinion is tantamount to treason.

If we are to move forward with our own social liberation, we must embrace the intended purpose of occasions such as World Press Freedom Day, which are meant to better the lives of all people everywhere. This means journalists, Palestinian or otherwise, should be allowed to express their opinions freely within the normal boundaries of decency and respect, with impunity.

Even though we have limited control over Israeli atrocities against Palestinians, including journalists, we can ensure that elements of our own society do respect the universal right of freedom of expression and opinion. This will not only save those voices that dared to speak out, but it will lend to the process of mending our own warped mindset towards a healthier outlook on social plurality.

Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at


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