Detained journalist questions right to freedom of speech for Palestinians

    West Bank security forces allegedly held George Canawati for five days after he reported on tensions within Fatah party

    Harriet Sherwood in Bethlehem, Wednesday 29 December 2010 17.20 GMT
    Article history

      Palestinian security forces

      Palestinian security forces detained journalist George Canawati for five days without charge or explanation. Photograph: Abed al-Hashlamoun/EPAAn 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.

      Asked if he believed the detention was intended to intimidate him, Canawati responded by twisting his ear between thumb and forefinger. “I didn’t make a mistake [in my report],” he said. “I was professional to the true sense of the word. I will never take their pinch of ear into consideration.”

      Despite requests by both phone and email for confirmation and comment from the Palestinian Authority (PA), there has been no response. This report is based on Canawati’s account alone.

      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.

      Tensions between Abbas and Dahlan have been widely reported over recent weeks, with Dahlan giving a series of interviews to the Arab and Palestinian media in which he criticised the Palestinian president. Abbas’s aides have accused Dahlan of trying to mount a coup. A private TV station connected to Dahlan was closed on the orders of the interior ministry.

      This week, Dahlan was banned from Fatah meetings while being investigated over financial issues and allegations of incitement, according to the Palestinian news agency Wafa. Previously, Abbas ordered Dahlan’s security guards to be removed.

      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.”

      The journalist was told that his release had been delayed and that normal procedures did not apply because of the Eid holiday. His mobile phone was taken away, although he was allowed to speak to his wife, and his mother was permitted to bring him clean clothes.

      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.

      Radio Bethlehem, of which Canawati is a director, has been broadcasting for 14 years without any interference from the Palestinian authorities. But his experience has made him question his freedom to operate as a journalist.

      “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.”

      Fayyad has been praised by the US and European governments for imposing order on the West Bank as part of his state-building efforts. But some say the PA’s security measures have involved a crackdown on political dissent and criticism.

      Independent Palestinian journalists come under pressure from both the PA and the Israeli authorities, said Canawati. “I don’t want freedom just in slogans. I want to be free to criticise politicians.”

      After his release he held a meeting of Radio Bethlehem’s staff. “I told them what happened would not affect what we broadcast. The detention has made me stronger.”

      Earlier this month 12 local radio and TV stations in the West Bank were closed by the PA for failing to properly apply and pay fees for new licences, according to the news website Ma’an. The Palestinian journalists’ union said the closures were imposed without warning.

    Detained journalist questions right to freedom of speech for Palestinians | World news |

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