The Gaza Strip: No Cameras Allowed

3174314249_97f583a8d4_bThe Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, treatment one of the two principal Palestinian territories, click likes to portray an aura of openness to the outside world.

Humanitarian assistance to help the Palestinian people survive the Israeli blockade of the narrow coastal enclave is welcome. Diplomatic visits are encouraged. Foreign activists, breast please, come in. Financial assistance, more than welcome.

Journalists? Lately… not so welcome.

Hamas has gone out of its way to court foreign journalists since they took over the Gaza Strip in a violent 2007 coup and kicked out the rival Palestinian movement, Fatah. Claiming the part of the open, transparent victims of Israel, the Americans and the Fatah-led Palestinian administration in the West Bank, Hamas boasted of bringing law and order to Gaza’s embattled residents.

But beyond the open media coverage of Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israel, journalists trying to cover internal Palestinian divisions and violence have found themselves arrested, had their equipment confiscated and been prevented from covering public events. Harassment of journalists reached such levels over the past two months that the Foreign Press Association (FPA), which represents journalists from international news organizations in Israel and the Palestinian territories, felt compelled to issue an extremely rare public rebuke of Hamas over its violations of press freedom.

“The FPA condemns in the strongest terms the actions by Hamas security forces during a Yasser Arafat memorial event in Rafah,” the organization said in a statement following the detention of Palestinian journalists covering a Fatah-associated rally for both Arab and European media. “International television crews were detained and ordered to turn over news footage to the authorities. This is the latest in what seems to be a systematic campaign by Hamas to harass and intimidate journalists. Our members are professional journalists working for respected global news organizations. We demand that Hamas let journalists do their work and respect the basic right of freedom of the press.”

Josef Federman, chairman of the Foreign Press Association and news editor at the Associated Press (AP) in Jerusalem, said the incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“Over the past couple months we’ve received several complaints of harassment of foreign journalists in the Gaza Strip,” he told Change.org. “We are getting scattered complaints that journalists are being followed, not getting access to places that they were able to go in the past, prevented from taking pictures or being harassed by police.”

“Inspections at the border have also become increasingly intrusive,” Federman added. “Inspections take longer and journalists have had a much harder time getting standard equipment into Gaza… We are planning on sending a delegation to Gaza in the near future to discuss the situation with the appropriate authorities.”

The Palestinian Territories are consistently ranked towards the bottom of press freedom rankings put out annually by a number of organizations. Freedom House, the most influential among them, gave the Palestinian Territories the worst rating possible in its most recent annual Freedom in the World report. Israel, despite its many shortcomings in its relations with and treatment of the Palestinians, is the only Middle Eastern country to have been designated in the annual reports as ‘Free’, the best rating a country can receive, for more than three decades.

The Palestinians in Gaza have suffered extensively for decades, and continue to find themselves in a unique predicament in which their human and civil rights are regularly violated. There are a number of factors and players at fault, not the least of which are Israeli policies towards the Gaza Strip.

But this is no excuse for blocking journalists trying to cover day to day developments in Gaza. The Hamas government cannot call in journalists to cover civilian suffering at the hands of Israel and then prevent them from covering internal Palestinian tensions and violence.

International pressure often helps in these cases. Please sign the petition below, and call on Hamas to stop the harassment of journalists in the Gaza Strip, to develop a clear and transparent policy on press freedom and to make it public.

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