GAZA/RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - On Sept. 1, half a dozen Hamas security officials called at the home of Mohammed Othman, a young journalist in Gaza who had written several probing articles. They seized two laptops, two mobile phones and took Othman away for questioning.
Twenty-four hours later, after what he described as an intense interrogation, the 29-year-old was released, but not before he had been asked to sign a document promising not to criticize Hamas, the Islamist group that runs Gaza, or its security services. Othman says he refused.
“They were telling me things trying to scare me and influence me,” he told Reuters the day after his release, describing being slapped around during the detention. “I discovered the reality is worse than I thought.”
The Hamas-run Government Media Office in Gaza said Othman was detained by internal security on a warrant issued by the prosecutor’s office, and denied he was mistreated.
“We have great respect for the rights of journalists to work freely and write everything,” the head of the office, Salama Maarouf, told Reuters. “The general policy is to allow journalists to work freely and not to touch their rights.”
Despite that, media monitoring and human rights groups say press freedom is under threat in the West Bank and Gaza, with both Hamas and Fatah, the Western-backed party that runs the West Bank, increasingly wary of journalists and bloggers who write critically or seek to expose wrongdoing.
“(They) are arresting, abusing and criminally charging journalists and activists who express peaceful criticism of the authorities,” Human Rights Watch said in a report in August.
“Both Palestinian governments, operating independently, have apparently arrived at similar methods of harassment, intimidation and physical abuse of anyone who dares criticize.”
The Independent Commission for Human Rights reported that 24 people in the West Bank and 21 in Gaza were arrested in 2015 for criticizing Palestinian authorities or writing about forbidden topics.
Veteran Palestinian journalists say the situation is worsening. For years their biggest fear was the Israeli military, which has occupied the West Bank since 1967 and in the past year has shut down two radio stations in Hebron. But now it is just as often the Palestinian authorities clamping down.
“There was a great hope that under Palestinian rule media freedom would flourish,” said Emad Saada, 50, who has worked for the Palestinian daily newspaper al-Quds for 25 years.
“But violations and restrictions against the freedom of the press continued in one way or another and the media has begun to suffer from a dual threat: the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian authority.”
The result, journalists say, is an increasing amount of self-censorship. With reporters and bloggers being detained for weeks and in some cases suffering physical harm, others are thinking twice about how probing they want to be.
“The factor of self-censorship has turned into a security man sitting inside the minds of journalists, telling them what to write and what not to write,” said Fathy Sabbah, the Gaza correspondent for London-based Al-Hayyat newspaper.
“There is caution among many journalists and bloggers,” he said, adding that, conversely, there was also more risk-taking among some who are determined not to back down.
In Gaza, which has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt for nearly a decade, journalists say Hamas has grown steadily more uncomfortable with criticism since it seized full control of the territory in 2007.
In the West Bank, rights groups say the number of cases of journalists being harassed is higher. Ragheed Tbeisa, a 23-year-old reporter for the Al-Quds news network and Palestine Post, was detained for 18 days last month, shortly after publishing a report about electricity shortages in Qalqiliya.
He said he was held in a cell alone for nearly the whole time, with just three hours of interrogation. Asked how it would affect his work he said: “The influence may be that someone will stop writing, or the opposite, it would give someone a motive to continue to write what he believes.”
Asked about the detention of journalists in the West Bank, the spokesman for the Palestinian Authority’s security services said there was no new effort to curtail criticism.
“We do not have a policy to chase or crack down on the freedom of the media,” said Adnan al-Dmairi, adding that journalists should complain if they felt restricted.
“When a violation occurs ... the journalist should file a complaint either against the security service where he was detained or personally against the security man who violated his rights,” he said.
Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Giles Elgood