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Violence against journalists: is law the solution?

3 March 2016

"Not a day passes without a journalist or photographer in Palestine risking injuries, or worse, from a rubber bullet or rifle butt," said Jim Boumelha, president of the International Federation of Journalists.

Journalists are seen as the enemy, a legitimate target for the military, he said at meeting held by the National Union of Journalists and law firm Bindmans. A brief film showed the level of violence journalists faced at the hands of Israeli soldiers.The clips showed photographic equipment being smashed and a female reporter talking to camera as she was shot in the leg. Jim Boumelha said:

"As well as the risk to their lives, journalists face day-to-day harassment. The authorities refuse to recognise the IFJ press card, accepted throughout the world, to let them travel to report stories. The authorities routinely shut down radio stations, throwing staff out of the jobs, confiscating equipment."

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, told the meeting she had experienced what journalists face, and heard their testimonies, when she visited Palestine at the end of last year. She said:

"One incident that particularly sticks in my mind. It was footage of a reporter who fell to the ground, screaming with agony and shock after she was shot in the arm by an Israeli soldier – her colleagues tried to staunch the wound, but they were at yelled at by watching soldiers  and told to move away.
"All the Palestinian reporters and photographers I saw were wearing safety vests that clearly identify them as journalists and all are targeted, abused and attacked simply for trying to do their job."

Aseil Abu-Baker is the legal research and advocacy officer for Al-Haq, an independent Palestinian human-rights organisation based in Ramallah in the West Bank. She said there had been a huge rise in violence across the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and beyond the Green line in Israel proper in recent months. The excessive use of force by Israel had resulted in 182 Palestinian deaths and almost 20,000 injured since the beginning of October, coupled with a huge rise in the numbers of arrests and arbitrary detentions. She said:

"The story of journalist Mohamed Al-Qiq’s is no different to that of the thousands of other Palestinians. He is a 33 year-old-journalist, and father of two, from Ramallah. He is a correspondent for Saudi-based AlMajd. He was arrested in November 2015 on grounds of “journalistic incitement”. His family says he was arrested for his reporting on the reality of the occupation.
"He began a hunger strike in protest of his arrest and when he refused to cooperate during the interrogation, he was put in administrative detention for a period of six months. Nearing death, on the 94th day of his hunger strike, his lawyer reached a deal with Israel to release the striking journalist in May."

She said that Mohamed Al-Qiq is one of an estimated 650 Palestinians held under indefinite Israeli detention without charge or trial. Administrative detention terms are usually for six months, but can be renewed indefinitely.

The Israeli government, she said, acts aggressively with news organisations whose reports they do not like branding them "enemy broadcasters" Al Jazeera and CBS have recently received threats.

The IFJ and NUJ have been working in Palestine for more than 30 years, supporting press and broadcasters in the region. Monir Zaarour, the IFJ's co-ordinator in the Middle East, told the meeting about the organisation's safety programme which trains journalists working in conflict zones. So far 1,500 have benefited from the advice, 40 per cent of them women.

What can be done when Israel is clearly in breach of international law in the way it is treating journalists?

Saimo Chahal QC (Hon) is a partner at Bindmans and joint head of the international law and public teams. She said that according to reports by those working on the ground, violations against journalists have increased by 154 per cent in the past three years.

She said the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in addition to provisions of the International Human Rights Covenant, particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights are applicable to Israel even in the absence of a binding treaty. She said:

"Nonetheless, Israel rejected the applicability of human rights treaties to the occupied territories, arguing that the relationship between occupier and occupied is fundamentally different from that between government and its people during peacetime.
"However, since Palestine ratified the Rome statute plus the other core multi-national treaties this has paved the way to jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. This could be one route to challenge the Israeli authorities."

Saimo is now pulling together evidence of violations and has more than 30 incidences documented by Al Haq and the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate. One other route would be to call on the Human Rights Council’s independent Human Rights experts – special rapporteurs can be asked to investigate and report on human rights violations from a thematic or country specific perspective. She said:

“The law does not provide easy answers: however there is evidence of systematic abuse of journalists and photographers’ rights to freely report  and film what is happening, as well as intimidation, abuse, assault and the reckless killing of journalists which needs investigation. We hope to put together evidence to persuade the special rapporteur of the UN to investigate these issues.”

The meeting showcased an exhibition of photographs which showed evidence of the brutally and obstruction meted out at journalists and photographers for just doing their jobs.

Tags: , international, ifj, palestine, palestinian journalists' syndicate, press freedom, journalist safety, journalists arrested, journalists assaulted