The freedom of expression is one of the keystones of human rights. Without this freedom other rights such as those relating to freedom of thought and opinion have little meaning. The right to assembly and association, the right to participate in one's government and the right to have free and fair elections become valueless. Free expression is Particularly important to human rights protection; as a central part of this protection is the publicising of violations internationally and locally through formal human rights protection mechanisms such as courts, committees and other judicial type organs, as well as less formal means, such as the publication of reports and information to the public and media.
Indeed, for these reasons, and as one of the most important means of ensuring governmental accountability, it is fundamental to democratic society. It is unfortunate then that the Palestinian Authority has chosen to adopt a law which limits the freedom of the press. The Press Law, signed by Yasser Arafat as Chairman of the PLO and President of the Palestinian National Authority, was issued on 25 June 1995. It adopts a regulatory and monitoring approach which hinders the publication of news and information and, thus, undermines the freedom of expression.
The Press Law covers every publication issued and imported in the autonomous areas. It regulates the activities of every institution which publishes information, from newspaper publishers to translation houses. Indeed, no institution and no publication is excluded from the remit of the Press Law.
The law regulates every aspect of an institution involved in publishing information: what information can and cannot be published, who can own a "periodical print" (Publication), work as editor-in-chief, and be director of a research centre which publishes information; it requires a minimum registered capital, a minimum number of editions for periodicals; it prohibits and controls relations with foreign bodies and countries and even details how certain items should be inserted into a publication.
Control is exercised through the issuing of licences by the Minister of Information. It is maintained through the threat of various penalties: withdrawal of the licence, threat of civil and criminal court action against the owner of the publication, its editor-in-chief, the author, owners of the print and distribution house, and libraries who hold the offending article in their collections. The penalties under the law are publishing an apology, closure of the publication for three months, a maximum fine of six thousand Jordanian Dinars and a maximum of six month's imprisonment, (though Article 44 states only that the minimum imprisonment period should be one month).
It is clear that the law permits the Minister of Information to regulate activities of the press and other publishers well after the issuance of a licence. The above penalty measures clearly. point to this and the law has a continuing nature of regulation. So, the requirements of the law must be fulfilled during the life-time of the publishing house. Failure to do so may result in crippling administrative penalties and further legal sanctions.
There are some oints that should be made about the Press Law, these form the basis of our criticism of the law and are further detailed in this report. Firstly, the Press Law offers the Palestinian Authority the power to control every article in every publication which is printed, stored, imported or distributed in the autonomous areas of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Secondly, the law leaves much to the interpretation of the Ministry of Interior. Although it is reviewable by the courts, the power the Ministry exercises is, as explained above, broad and is not subject to judicial approval. Thus, at a minimum, an investigation can be instigated into the publication house or against any individual who violates the provisions of the Press Law, the publication can be seized and the print suspended. There also seems to be a residual power which the Ministry of Interior exercises in an administrative capacity.
Thirdly, where prohibitions on publications are clear, for example on national security and public morality grounds, these go much further than the customary restrictions on the freedom of expression in many democratic countries, and certainly beyond the limits of the freedom in international human rights law.
Finally, there are articles in the law which appear to protect the freedom of expression, but these appear not to have any legal force. Particularly, statements complying with international human rights standards merely form the preface to a law which seeks to restrict those very rights. Also, the language of the articles is too vague to be enforceable and it is unlikely that the Ministry of Interior will view the article as forming a legal requirement.
The criticisms which appear in the Arabic version of this report have been submitted to the Palestinian Authority, and circulated amongst interested groups in the Occupied Territories. It is hoped that, as soon as possible, appropriate legislation and procedures are adopted which instil the principles of democracy and respect for human rights.