Journalists who stood outside the court building exchanged jokes about the "six million dollars." No problem, we'll obtain them, someone said. That's small change, another said. But these light remarks did not hide concerns about their colleague, Yusuf Al-Shayeb, who was at the time on his way to the Magistrate's Court in Ramallah, to have his remand extended.
The Palestinian Authority's foreign ministry, headed by Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki, and the Palestinian diplomatic mission in France have submitted libel claims against Al-Shayeb – who works for the Palestinian Al-Ayyam newspaper (which is associated with the PA ) and AlGhad, a Jordanian newspaper – demanding compensation of six million dollars.
Of the two papers that he writes for, it was the Jordanian one that on January 29 published his report on claims of corruption at the Palestinian diplomatic mission in France. The report alleged that the mission's deputy ambassador, Safwat Ibraghit, compels Palestinian students to spy on Muslim groups in France and relay information to Palestinian and foreign intelligence services. Al-Shayeb also claimed that Maliki, Palestinian National Fund director Dr. Ramzi Khouri, and Abu Nabil, who handles funds for Fatah, were responsible for Ibraghit's promotion, despite complaints that have been leveled against him.
Al-Shayeb noted that sources in the PA foreign ministry reject these claims and brand them "malicious." According to these sources, persons who level complaints against the diplomatic mission are acting out of personal interests and want to besmirch the reputation of senior officials who were nominated by the PA government and by the PLO. The sources also told Al-Shayeb that the Foreign Ministry does not hesitate to investigate complaints leveled against it.
Responses to the article that reinforced its allegations were posted immediately on the AlGhad website. One of the respondents noted that the diplomatic mission itself had not issued a statement to the media.
On January 31, Al-Shayeb was summoned to the PA's general intelligence service's office in Ramallah. He refused to reveal the identity of his sources, and said that under the 1995 Palestinian press and publications law, a journalist is obliged to reveal sources only under orders issued by a court.
Since he was not classified as a detained suspect, his phone was not confiscated and he was able to report about his whereabouts. Later, he told a reporter from the Doha Center for Media Freedom that while he was interrogated in the intelligence service offices, his cell phone received threatening messages.
The same day, incidentally, another journalist, Rami Samara, who works for the official Palestinian news service Wafa and for a local radio station, was arrested. The pretext for his detention was a mocking Facebook entry he posted that ridiculed the PLO's decision to resume negotiations with Israel (talks which, as expected, were deferred ). The two journalists were released in the evening; before their release, the Palestinian Journalists Union in the West Bank staged a rally on their behalf at Ramallah's Manara Square.
On February 20, Al-Shayeb was stunned to discover that his newspaper published an apology for his report. A few days later, he was fired. According the Doha Center for Media Freedom's website, Al-Shayeb submitted an official complaint to the Jordanian journalists' association, and also started legal proceedings against AlGhad. But he was not able to make much headway because he was detained last Sunday, March 25, on orders from the Palestinian attorney general; he was initially arrested for 48 hours. The journalists association protested this arrest, and arranged a protest vigil when he was taken for a remand extension last Wednesday.
The court compound is located across from the Foreign Ministry. On Wednesday morning, a few minutes before 10 A.M., there did not appear to be an unusual deployment of policemen and security personnel in this area. Slowly journalists and a few citizens who were stunned by this arrest started to stream toward the court. One person, who never even read the original, controversial report, said that she was distressed that a reporter could be arrested for doing his job. Another person noted that the arrest was carried out under the authority of the 1960 Jordanian penal code, which the Palestinian Authority has not altered, but the 1995 press and publication law protects the right of a journalist to maintain a source's confidentiality.
While some 30 people demonstrated in the street, some colleagues of the detained journalist were in the courtroom, watching as the attorney general's representative asked for a remand extension so that the suspect's questioning could be continued. The allegation, in Al-Ayyam's words, was that Al-Shayeb "published libelous rumors that damaged the reputation of official bodies which represent the Palestinian Authority." Al-Shayeb was brought into the courtroom in handcuffs, accompanied by armed policemen.
One of his sources, Zuhair Al-Asali, who worked as a translator in the French mission, decided to reveal his identity. In a YouTube video he discusses information which he relayed to the journalist. None of this influenced the attorney general's position and that of the judge.
Defense attorney Dawoud Dira'wi asked the court to release his client on bond until the trial date, but the judge, Fatoum E'beyat, decided to extend the remand by 15 days. Al-Shayeb declared that he is starting a hunger strike. On the same day, the court extended by 15 days the remand of Ismat Abd al Haleq, a woman who posted on Facebook some remarks about Abu Mazen's children.
An associate in Ramallah told me that "the authorities' behavior only reinforces the general feeling that all the claims which he [Al-Shayeb] raised were true. The arrest and the demand for compensation are designed to intimidate journalists and deter them from exposing corruption."
In contrast, the foreign minister, while attending last Thursday the Arab Summit meeting in Baghdad, adamantly upheld the PA's right to arrest Al-Shayeb. Speaking with the editor of the Maan news agency, Maliki angrily stated that the PA is the victim in this instance, and he called on Palestinian journalists to expunge Al-Shayeb from their roster.
"This is a dangerous precedent, and a dark day for journalism and journalists," declared the West Bank journalists union, calling on all journalists to join its boycott of the "2012 freedom of journalism award," about which no other than the Palestinian Authority issued an announcement last Tuesday.