On Wednesday, 13 February 2019, Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) organized a panel discussion titled as “Journalists’ Press Cards: Rights-Oriented Vision.” The panel was attended by representatives from the Government Information Office, Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate, Media Institutions and Personnel, Civil Society Organizations (CBOs) and legal experts.
This panel came in the context of the Government Information Office’s decision issued on 10 February 2019, obliging journalists to obtain press cards from the Office in order to have access to the official organizations and departments starting from 1st of April. This decision was met with criticism by journalists and non-governmental media bodies; thus, the panel came to discuss the motives and justifications of issuing such a decision and its impact on the media freedoms and free access to information.
Hamdi Shaqourah, Head of PCHR’s Democratic Development Unit (DDU), opened the panel discussion and presented the panel’s topic and controversy over it. He also reviewed PCHR’s position which refuses imposing any restrictions on journalists’ work and free access to information. He emphasized that right to information access shall be respected, and any card shall be to facilitate journalists’ mission and to be a political tool to impose selectivity on journalism.
Salamah Ma’arouf, Director of the Government Information Office, said that there is no law that bans the Office from issuing press cards, which used to be issued and stopped in 2013. He stressed that these press cards came to meet the urgent needs of many journalists who do not hold the Syndicate’s card. He added that his Office daily receives calls from the security services about journalists covering without any identification card. He stressed that this card aims at institutionalizing and organizing journalists’ work and facilitating their mission. He also said that after a meeting a day before with media bodies, they reached a formulation which says that the press card aims at facilitating the mission of its holder at the governmental bodies and others. He points out that there was a defect in the announcement’s formulation, so it was withdrawn. He confirmed that the concerns, which say the decision was issued after a number of investigative reports were published, are not true, elaborating that the Office facilitated their work in the investigations. He said that there is no law regulating the right to information access and even if there was, this would not preclude having measures to regulate this right.
Momen ‘Abdel Wahed, Director of Public Relations at the Ministry of information in Gaza, emphasized that issuing this card came to facilitate journalists’ work and aims at regulating and managing the situation within the law and not to impose restrictions on journalism. He added that the Ministry respects media freedoms.
Bassam Darwish, Representative of the Journalists’ Syndicate, said in his intervention that issuing journalists’ press card by the Government Information Office is a procedure that impairs and restricts the freedom of journalism. He wonders If it is agreed that the card is not mandatory for the journalist, will the governmental bodies allow to open its doors to those who do not hold the government card but a card accredited by other bodies?. He stressed that the form to fill the press card has a problem and is open to interpretation. He also considered that the body issuing the press card is only authorized to do so.
In his speech, Rami al-Shrafi, Representative of Democratic Press Association, explained what happened in the latest meeting between the representatives of media organizations and Ministry of Information. He emphasized that an agreement had been reached with the Government Information Office to withdraw the declaration and issue an explanation confirming that the card is not mandaory, obtaining it is optional and its purpose is only to facilitate the journalist’s mission. He added that the Ministry of Information actually withdrew the declaration, but did not mention in the clarification issued that the card is not mandatory.
Fathi Sabbah, Director of the Palestinian Institute for Communication and Development, rejected issuing this card by the Ministry of Information and called for elections to be held at the Journalists’ Syndicate to reactive its role. He also said that issuance of the declaration reflects a restrictive mentality, denying that it was all about having a defect in the formulation.
Mahmoud al-Hams, a photographer for the French News Agency AFP, asked if this card would facilitate the journalist’s work, and said: Will the card be identified by all security services, and thus I will be able to practice my work freely?
Ahmed Zo’bor, Representative of the Palestinian Journalist Coalition, stressed that the organization is against imposing any restriction on journalism, and the Ministry of Information did not intend to restrict it, but there was a big mistake in the formulation. He emphasized that the formulation was unanimously refused, and it was agreed that the card is not mandatory and does not cancel others. In his view, the solution would be for the press organizations to issue a joint statement explaining what had been agreed upon.
Sakher Abu al-‘Oun, an AFP journalist, said that the card was issued for security purposes, and such cards were supposed to be for the foreign journalists and not the local ones. He stressed that the Syndicate of Journalists must be the only body authorized to issue a press card.
Muhsen Abu Ramadan, representing the Arab Center for Agricultural Development, pointed out that the current situation is due to the Palestinian division, which prioritized the security dimension over the human rights requirements. He also attributed it to the bad relationship between the Syndicate of Journalists and Governmental bodies.
Hasan Jaber, a reporter for Al-Ayyam Newspaper, confirmed that the problem is the absence of the Syndicate of Journalists, which does not do its work and selectivity grants the press cards, clarifying that it should reactive its role. He said that the security officers do not respect the card issued by the Government Information Office, especially in cases of emergency.
‘Ahed Ferwana, Representative of the Fatah Central Journalists Office, emphasized that the meeting at the Press House based on the opinion of many human rights organizations that issuance of such cards is illegal and not according to the Palestinian Basic Law. He added that the day before the media organizations had a joint meeting with the Government Information Office, concluding removal of the announcement. However, the Office’s statement was not clear. He added that what they have understood is that the card is not mandatory, but still the statement was not clear. He wondered, “What is the guarantee for not circulating in the governmental organizations to deal only with those holding the press cards accredited by the Government Information Office?”
Redwan Abu Jamous, Representative of the Palestinian Media Rally, emphasized that the Rally is with the freedom of press, but in the same time with deregulating the situation. He added that dozens of activists live-stream during the Return March protests, so he is totally with issuing identification cards to facilitate journalists’ mission. Shireen Khalifah, a journalist from Filastiniyat, said she is concerned that not holding this card, even if it was optional, would obstruct her work and so holding it would be mandatory and not optional as it was declared.
At the end of the panel discussion, the attendees emphasized that dialogue shall continue between the Government Information Office and the media organizations to resolve this issue in a way that guarantees the right to press freedom and facilitate journalists’ mission in the governmental organizations.