When a journalist battles the government: Hajar Harb vs. Ministry of Health
In 2017, the government of Hamas filed a case against Hajar Harb, who reported on corruption in the Ministry of Health. It was considered a dangerous precedent, as it was the first time a journalist was indicted for her work. Here, she recounts how she won the case in 2019, and acknowledged her mistakes as well.
In 2015, I decided to work on an investigative report on corruption within Gaza’s system of patient referrals for medical treatment abroad.
I decided to wear a face cover (niqab) and pretended that I need a referral to travel abroad - not for medical treatment, but to visit my fiancé.
I pitched the idea to Al-Araby TV after many people encouraged me to work on this story. Travelling for medical treatment had become a pressing need for many patients in Gaza, especially due to the scarcity of medical supplies and inefficient medical services. There was also a personal motive; my younger brother had suffered an injury that disfigured his face, and our application for a referral had been refused, and we never knew the reasons why.
I started the investigation on the hypothesis that there are corrupt individuals within the health sector who take bribes to grant permits to individuals who are not eligible to travel, which is at the expense of patients who are most in need to receive treatment abroad. I also wanted to expose the inefficiency of the monitoring system within the department of medical referrals as well as the public hospitals. But I also had to take into consideration the sensitive political reality in the Gaza Strip, because both governments in the West Bank and Gaza are responsible for this situation.
I decided to wear a face cover (niqab) and pretended that I needed a referral to travel abroad - not for medical treatment, but to visit my fiancé. I shot some of my interviews with a hidden camera. I wore the niqab because I live in a small area where I can be easily identified and, therefore, I didn’t want to be recognised during any of my visits to the Ministry of Health. At the time, I did not know if the law allowed me to wear the niqab during an investigation. However, after publishing the report I learned that there were no legal issues with that, and that it is not considered a criminal impersonation.
For several days, I visited the main public hospital in Gaza, and I was able to prove on tape (using my hidden camera) that some doctors had asked me for bribes in exchange for a medical referral, which I wasn’t entitled to, so I could go to the West Bank and get married to my fiancé.
I worked on the report for a year and a half, during which time I discovered that some security officers were selling fake medical referrals to people who were not eligible for treatment. Other individuals claimed that they were assigned by the Palestinian President's Office to follow up on medical referrals, but were in fact involved in faking medical referrals.
Although I obtained conclusive evidence, I decided to hide the identities of those involved based on advice from a lawyer from the Coalition for Accountability and Integrity (AMAN). We live in a tribal society, and revealing the identities of these people might put me at risk of tribal retribution. While I’m aware that, professionally-speaking, I should reveal their identities as the whole purpose of my investigation is to expose corruption, I had to comply with traditional rules that govern Palestinian society.
During the preparation of this report, the management of Al-Araby TV did not supervise the investigation at all. They bought it from me as it was. In mid 2016, the report was aired on Al Araby TV.
A storm of accusations
some colleagues told me they wouldn’t be able to defend me if I did not hand over the raw material because journalists can’t stand against the power of the government.
After the investigation was broadcast, I immediately began to receive threats from people who "believed" they were affected by it. The doctor who received the bribe filed a complaint against me, although I did not reveal his identity. Then, I received a notice from the Attorney General's office summoning me for an interrogation regarding the report. I also appeared before the Public Prosecution for almost two months; each interrogation lasted three hours. They wanted to know my sources, the identity of the people who claimed to represent the Palestinian President’s Office, and the security officers who were faking medical referrals. Given that the Palestinian Press and Publications Law protects journalists’ right to keep their sources confidential except during a trial, it was only right that I would refuse to disclose my sources.
As a result, the Information Office of the Hamas government filed a complaint against me. They demanded that I hand over the raw material so they would pass them to the Attorney General's office, in return for closing the file against me. Many of my colleagues intervened to convince me to comply with their demand, and eventually I did. I handed all the material over to the government’s Information Office.
Perhaps this was the worst mistake, but I had to do it because I knew they would restrict my work had I refused to do so. They could have accused me of serving foreign agendas, and some colleagues told me they wouldn’t be able to defend me if I did not hand over the raw material because journalists can’t stand against the power of the government.
Prison for six months
In 2017, I was diagnosed with cancer, so I had to leave Gaza for treatment in the Jordanian capital, Amman. After three months of chemotherapy, I was shocked to learn that the court in Gaza had sentenced me to six months imprisonment in absentia and a fine of about $400. The indictment included publishing false information, inaccurate reporting about the Ministry of Health, incitement against the Ministry of Health, and criminal impersonation. Neither I nor my lawyer had received any notice about the verdict. We only heard about it from the media.
I was shocked to learn that the court in Gaza had sentenced me to six months imprisonment in absentia and a fine of about $400.
The verdict turned into a case of public opinion. Journalists and activists posted on social media, calling for the verdict to be overturned. As a result, the deputy chief of Hamas, Yahya al-Sinwar, intervened and gave orders to cancel the sentence until I returned to the Gaza Strip. His intervention - although in my favour - is also considered illegal as he represents a political faction, not the government. Indeed, after my return in the summer of 2018, a re-trial was ordered on the basis that I was absent from the country. This time, I went through ten court hearings.
During this time, the governments’ Civil Service Office had also appointed a commission to look into the case of the doctor who had taken the bribe. The commission concluded that the findings of my investigation were correct. In addition, a veteran journlaist, the Al-Hayat correspondent in Gaza Fathi Sabah, testified in my favour by stating that wearing the niqab was not in violation of the law as the prosecution had claimed, and that my investigation was professional. The defense committee also focused on an important issue: the public prosecutor who brought the case against me was part of the Anti-Corruption and Money Laundering Crimes Department, which has no jurisdiction to prosecute journalists.
In March 2019, I was acquitted of all the charges.
Unfortunately, the doctor was not punished. He was only transferred to work in another hospital for 60 days, then returned to work at the same hospital as if nothing had happened. However, there was a decision to form a special committee to supervise the process of medical referrals for treatment abroad.
Despite everything I went through, I did not stop my investigative work. In December 2018, I worked on an investigation on corruption in a housing project for low-income families after I received information that some of the housing units were given to well-off families and relatives of government officials. While the harassment against me did not stop, the legal battle that I went through increased my confidence in my ability to pursue investigative work. I always say this to colleagues who face similar challenges: When the authorities seek to target journalists, the first thing they do is look for loopholes in their work to use against them. Make sure there are no legal or professional loopholes in your reporting and don’t give any chance to anyone to stop you from doing your work.
When the authorities seek to target journalists, the first thing they do is look for loopholes in their work to use against them.
Hajar’s tips for mitigating the risk of legal prosecution in investigative journalism
You need to be clear about the “hypothesis” that you are trying to prove. In my case, my hypothesis was that "the lack of monitoring within the department of medical referrals allowed for corruption and bribes to take place, at the expense of many patients."
Be diligent in obtaining documents to prove and validate all your conclusions. Be sure to make extra copies of your evidence.
Have a legal review of all the steps you have taken throughout your investigation. If you are unsure about any step in the process, do not take it before consulting a lawyer.
Support from the channel or media institution you are working with is important. One of the most important lessons I have learned is to make sure that any institution I work with in the future is willing to shoulder its legal responsibilities, and would support me and stand by me in case of legal prosecution or harassment.