Geneva: The government of Israel, the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza are all unduly limiting free speech through restrictive laws, intimidation and censorship, a UN human rights expert said Tuesday.

The global body’s independent investigator on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, said the measures have had a chilling effect on the work of journalists and peace activists, and urged Israel and the Palestinians to uphold international standards on free speech.

“I am concerned by the recent attempts to limit criticism of Israel regarding its policies and practices of occupation, and questioning of Israel as a Jewish state,” La Rue said as he presented his report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

He cited a law adopted last year that allows Israeli authorities to fine publicly-funded institutions that commemorate the so-called “Nakba,” or catastrophe, an Arabic term used by Palestinians to describe the displacement of hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish residents during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948.

“The law severely undermines their right to freely express their opinion, preserve their history and culture, and to their right to commemorate the Nakba, which is an integral part of their history,” said La Rue.

He also questioned an Israeli law that makes it a civil offence to call for a boycott against Israel and its products, as well as those produced in the colonies in the West Bank.

“Calling for or participating in a peaceful boycott is a legitimate form of expression which is internationally recognised,” La Rue said in his report. “Moreover, given that lawsuits can be brought against individuals without any proof of damages, it creates further incentives for self-censorship, including on the internet, to avoid litigation. “

He voiced similar criticism of a bill to amend Israel’s defamation law, which would sharply increase fines without the need to prove damages.


Chilling effect

“If adopted, it will create a significant chilling effect and will discourage investigative journalists, human rights NGOs and individuals expressing critical views,” said La Rue.

Israel should also drop the practice of having a military censor review articles on issues of national security prior to publication, he said.

Israeli diplomats in Geneva didn’t comment on the report because the country has officially suspended its work with the 47-nation rights council, which Israel accuses of being biased against it.

But in occupied Jerusalem, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor noted the government “fully cooperated” with La Rue.

“We will study his report carefully and seriously,” he said.

“We remain totally committed to freedom of speech for all, and we will examine very closely the recommendations with the aim of making whatever improvements may be necessary.”

La Rue also criticised the Western-backed Palestinian Authority for requiring publishing licences and censoring publications according to broad and vague rules. He also expressed concern at reports that Facebook users were harassed for posting unfavourable comments about Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Palestinian government spokesman Gassan Khatib said the report would be dealt with “positively and seriously.”

Palestinian law “guarantees the freedom of the press, and normally we exert all our efforts to guarantee that,” he said.

Khatib also said there has been a “major improvement” in press freedom over the past four years.

“However, there have been individual, rare cases, but they were solved because of the power of the civil society and public opinion,” he said.

In Gaza, the ruling Hamas faction, which seized control of the coastal strip from Abbas’ forces five years ago, has introduced a new requirement for foreign journalists to name a local contact, which could lead to self-censorship, La Rue said.

He criticised the excessive force used by Hamas to disperse peaceful protests and cited “arbitrary arrests and detention of protesters and journalists monitoring demonstrations.”

Hassan Abu Hashish, chairman of Hamas’ Gaza government press office, called the report “slander.”

“Freedom of the media and freedom of speech in the Gaza Strip is well ahead of other Arab countries and the West Bank,” he said.