Imagine you’re the type of person who never gives up fighting for the truth. You receive the most prestigious award in your field, but you can’t receive it in person for no reason other than that you were born in occupied land and the occupying forces have issued a travel ban against you.
This is the story of Majdoleen Hassona, 32, a Palestinian journalist from the West Bank city of Nablus, the youngest daughter in a family of eight. In 2010 she graduated top of her class in Journalism and Media at Al-Najah National University in Nablus and has received multiple awards for her journalism.
But throughout her career, she has been harassed, pursued, interrogated and besieged by both Palestinian and Israeli authorities because of her journalism. Members of her family have been arrested in an attempt to silence her and stifle her career. She fears the travel ban, imposed on her in August 2019, may never be lifted, and indeed more restrictions may be imposed on her and the 20 other Palestinian journalists prevented from leaving the West Bank.
Hassona has been a journalist for 13 years. When she was 19, she volunteered at a local newspaper and during her second year at university she worked for a network –Ikbariat/news – which published her reports on their website. “I wanted a job to deliver the voice of the Palestinians to the world,” she says. “I felt that the best way to do this was to study journalism as it would help me achieve my goal.”
After freelancing both inside and outside Palestine, she was employed as a broadcast journalist with the Arabic-language service of the Turkish state-owned TV broadcaster TRT in Istanbul. In August 2019, having celebrated Eid in Nablus with her family and her fiancé, TRT World journalist Mohamed Khere, she was stopped at the border and prevented from returning to Istanbul.
The Israeli authorities failed to give Hassona any reason for the travel ban except for vague “security concerns”. She was told there was a “secret file” against her, but she has no idea what it contained. She was prevented from attending court hearings related to the travel ban decision and so could neither fulfil her obligations in Turkey nor collect her personal belongings.
Sabrina Bennoui, head of the Middle East desk of Reporters without Borders (RSF), which has condemned the travel ban, says: “We tried to shed light on Hassona’s travel ban issue locally and globally by holding many conferences and launching the #LetMajdoleenOut campaign with other organisations to call on Israel to lift travel bans against Palestinian journalists. We even tried to reach out to the Israeli authorities to learn more about the reasons beyond the ban. They only responded with ‘security reasons’ and provided no further information.” Hassona continues to work for TRT from the West Bank.
The ban was the culmination of a series of violations. In 2014 Hassona was arrested by the Israeli security services while returning from a conference in Turkey. The interrogation lasted for nine hours before she was eventually released.
Earlier this year (2022) Hassona and her now husband, who comes from 48-Palestinians (an Arabic term to refer to Palestinians living within the 1948 Israel borders), were again arrested at one of the Israeli checkpoints and interrogated for six hours. Israeli forces tried to make her sign papers condemning her, but she refused and asked for a lawyer. They were released on the same day.
Hassona’s conflict with the Palestinian Authority is no less fierce than that with the Israeli side. For her investigations, she has been harassed and interrogated and her brothers have been arrested. She has been deprived of the scholarship she won to complete her postgraduate studies abroad.
The reason is, of course, is that she is a thorn in its side. In 2009, her investigation exposed the corruption and inability of the Palestinian Ministry of Health to provide for the most basic needs of its citizens in its hospitals. Hassona was determined to expose the appalling conditions and medical negligence she witnessed in Palestinian hospitals after staying by the side of her sick father. The piece won her the best Investigative Journalist Award in the Arab countries for the Arab youth category from the Thomson Foundation.
Her investigation in 2009 into poisoned milk being sold in Palestine earned her the Media Journalists Against Corruption Award from the Anti-Corruption Commission. An American company produced safe, but expensive milk for babies who refuse to breastfeed. However, the Ministry of Health released a cheaper product from a different company without ensuring it was safe. It wasn’t and some babies were poisoned.
Hassona investigated this issue after hearing from parents who claimed their child had been poisoned. However, under pressure from the Palestinian Authority to suppress the story, the Anti-corruption Committee refused to give Hassona her prize or allow her to publish her investigation.
In 2011, Hassona was summoned to interrogation by the Palestinian security services. She refused the summons, and instead, she took a picture of the summons document and published it on social media, which led to an attempt to arrest her. When the police found she wasn’t at home, they arrested her two brothers, releasing them only after several days.
Because of these continuous threats, Hassona says she lives in constant terror. In 2018, while filming a demonstration in the West Bank city of Tulkarm, a security officer attacked her and tried to steal her phone. The police witnessed it but refused to get involved.
But this continual harassment only encourages people to get in touch with her. “Many people contact me about issues of political arrests, prisoners and other sensitive issues, and they are confident that if I write about it, their voice will be heard,” she says. “Therefore, I feel that this is the result of trying to convey this message to the world honestly. Also, what makes me stand out is that I am an independent journalist who is not affiliated with a political party or organisation.’’
For her courage and determination in continuing her work, in 2021 RSF awarded her the Free Journalist Award granted to journalists who have combatted corruption and defended freedom and, because of their work, have been subjected to violations.
Hassona says she never felt the RSF award was an award for her. “It was an award for all Palestinians. The first award sheds light on the Ministry of Health’s corruption. The last award sheds light on the issue of the travel ban dozens of Palestinian journalists suffer.’’
Whenever problems and challenges intensify, she always finds a haven in her family and her husband. “He makes me feel safe, a feeling that is missed in this country,” she says. “Just being a woman in this profession is strange in Arab societies. Later, it became understood in the Palestinian society that there are strong female journalists who can deliver the message.”
Hassona and her husband married in Palestine but cannot live together as Hassona is a Palestinian is not allowed to enter her husband’s house, which is outside the West Bank. Mohamed cannot live in the West Bank because of the laws of the Israeli occupation.
“Imagine that I am standing in a place where I can see my house, but I cannot enter it because I am forbidden to enter this area,” she says. “I always dreamed of getting a scholarship to complete my studies, but I cannot travel abroad. My husband and I miss our most basic right of having children, as we are not stable in a certain place and cannot build a healthy life to raise a family.”
Hassona faces her situation with courage and continues to work and plans for her future with her husband, who has never stopped supporting her. She looks for new opportunities as if the travel ban had been removed and calls on journalists worldwide to write about the violations that she and her colleagues endure in Palestine. “All journalists worldwide are forced to enter confrontations and cover wars and conflicts. We have to stand by each other.”
Sometimes, she cries from frustration when she remembers the injustices she lives through, when she needs some of her personal belongings and remembers they are in Istanbul or at her husband’s place. But she is determined to continue her investigations.
“I believe in my idea, that I am walking the right path, my belief in rights and freedoms, and that injustice doesn’t last. My belief is what keeps me going.”
Israel is ranked 86th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2021 World Press Freedom Index while Palestine is ranked 132nd.
Douna Haj Ahmed is a Syrian journalist and human rights activist. She is based in the UK.