Freedom of the press is an integral facet to any democracy, including Israel’s. Moreover, shared values between Israel and the United States are anchored in the concept of open and free media, which plays an important facet in the people’s right to choose their leaders.
Details are currently developing, but reports indicate that Israeli security forces detained and attempted to deport an American journalist working in the West Bank by accusing him of anti-Israel writings. The journalist does not work for a fringe news organization or a radical group. He is Jared Malsin, chief English editor for the Bethlehem-based Ma’an News Agency. This blog links regularly to Ma’an news -which publishes stories in English, Arabic, and Hebrew- and it is widely regarded as an independent Palestinian publication. Foreign government officials -including U.S. diplomats- regularly provide Ma’an with information and cooperate with the news organization.
Upon reentering Israel from a trip to Europe, Malsin and his travel companion were denied entry into Israel at Ben Gurion airport, held in a detention cell, interrogated for eight hours, and deemed a security risk due to political beliefs.
Israeli security forces researched Malsin’s articles at the publication and deemed his writings a threat because they “criticized the State of Israel” and were “authored articles inside the territories,” according to reports. Malsin allegedly originally entered Israel with the premise of becoming an Israeli citizen and cited his Jewish heritage, although the Israeli government accused Malsin of lying to enter the country.
The media organization notified the U.S. embassy, which repeatedly contacted Israeli authorities regarding the incident. Only following an intervention by Ma’an’s lawyer and U.S. efforts to secure an injunction, the publication successfully intervened to stay the deportation following a ruling by a Tel Aviv judge who overruled the Israeli attorney general’s rejection of the injunction. The case will now enter Israeli courts and a decision could come within days.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based media rights organization, expressed its opposition to the detention and pending deportation, calling Israel’s accusations “vague.”
Freedom of the press in Israel is generally respected. Aside from occasional gag orders imposed by Israeli courts in order to protect security-sensitive issues, the government rarely detains or threatens reporters. Even less often does an issue such as this detention occur, and when it does it usually makes headlines, further bolstering evidence of free speech in the country.
Further details will assuredly emerge at the pending hearing. However, current evidence and the generally positive reputation of Ma’an as an independent news organization likely indicate that: either Malsin worked outside the publication to spread hate or, and more likely, the Israeli government is trying to intimidate reporters from writing critical articles.
The Israeli press would never obtain the same treatment from the Israeli government, but Ma’an is technically Palestinian, therefore the organization has significantly less leverage than the domestic media.
I can already sense a comment I might get on this piece and I will preempt it.
Freedom of the press in Israel is far greater than it is anywhere in the Middle East, particularly in the West Bank or the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The Palestinian Authority has pressured journalists and even burned down offices of publications that criticized the government, threatened to undermine the peace process, or in any way negatively affected internal stability. And above all else, the press was effectively forbidden to, in any way, criticize former Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, or the organization would face the wrath of PA security forces.
Moreover, Hamas has imposed even stricter press restrictions on the Gaza Strip. The terror group regularly imprisons journalists, activists, or political leaders (including PA officials) that question the terror group.
In fact, the Tel Aviv judge should be commended for overturning the attorney general’s decision to deport Maslin and issue a decision after hearing all the facts. The judicial system worked and protected a journalist from a reputable news agency from intimidation of security forces.
There’s no comparison between Israel as a staunch supporter of freedom of the press and Palestinian leadership as an often oppressive force on speech. But, that distinction should in no way condone or permit the Israeli government from pressuring journalists that write critical articles.
The details of this case will emerge in the coming days and weeks, but I fear, once all the facts are in, the government may have taken another step away from democratic ideals.