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The Palestinians and the Press: Hazards for Reporters Working in the West Bank and Gaza
By Dave Gilson

Journalists in Palestinian-controlled territory face restrictions, intimidation, and even outright censorship under the Palestinian Authority. There are also serious threats from "rogue elements" in the streets.

A Palestinian security officer watches warily as Arafat speaks to reporters.

Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority has a reputation for shielding itself from the glare of the media by restricting press freedom in areas under its control. Local journalists, in particular, have been targeted for official harassment, intimidation and arrest. Here, a Palestinian security officer watches as Arafat speaks to reporters. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Khalid Amayreh launched the Hebron Times, an independent newspaper based in the West Bank town of Hebron, in January 2000. The weekly tabloid quickly became known for its persistent criticism of Israel, the United States and the Palestinian Authority (PA). It published unflattering caricatures of Palestinian president Yasser Arafat as well as opinion columns by Islamic nationalists. In his own writing, Amayreh depicted Arafat as a senile autocrat and called for his resignation.

The paper, not surprisingly, did not please the authorities. "The PA didn't like what we wrote," states Amayreh. The Palestinian intelligence and security forces called him in for questioning on several occasions. Stop criticizing Arafat and the PA, he was told, or face serious consequences. "But we didn't budge, as we were convinced that the battle for press freedom was too paramount," he recalls.

Palestinian security agents raided the Hebron Times' office on January 4, 2002, and shut it down. Amayreh claims agents admitted to him that they realized the closure was unfair and illegal. "They told us they had nothing against us -- no evidence incriminating us or suggesting that we were indulging in any wrongdoing." The paper has not reopened.

The Palestinan Authority often tried to silence outspoken Palestinian journalists.

Hani Al-Masri, director of publications for the Palestinian Ministry of Information, says that while he does not condone the closure of the Hebron Times, he understands why it was singled out for censure. "This newspaper was very extremist," he explains. "It didn't depend on the truth and objective opinion." Al-Masri also claims that the paper's closure was actually an effort by the PA to please the Israelis and the United States -- an allegation also made by Amayreh.

Since 1993, when the Palestinian Authority assumed control over parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, it has often tried to silence outspoken Palestinian journalists like Amayreh. Though a press law signed by Arafat in 1995 guarantees freedom of expression in Palestinian areas, officials and security agents often flout its protections.

Press freedom advocacy organizations have condemned the PA's draconian treatment of the media. The Committee to Protect Journalists decries the PA's "heavy-handed and arbitrary treatment of journalists" while the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières brands the Palestinian security services "predators of press freedom." These and other watchdog groups have documented dozens of cases of censorship, intimidation, detention and physical abuse against journalists in areas under Palestinian control.

A Palestinian policeman tries to remove a foreign cameraman from the scene of a riot in Hebron.

A Palestinian policeman tries to remove a foreign cameraman from the scene of a riot in Hebron. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Palestinian journalists working for local and international media are far more likely to be subjected to these restrictions than foreign journalists. But the PA also has tried to prevent foreign reporters from distributing images it considers embarrassing. In the weeks following the September 11 attacks, for example, the PA prevented reporters from covering anti-American and pro-Osama bin Laden demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza. It also banned filmed interviews with Palestinians about the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan and blocked reporters from entering Gaza, claiming it could not guarantee their safety.

The PA is especially sensitive about how it is depicted by Arabic-language media such as Al-Jazeera, the hugely popular Qatari satellite news network. In March 2001, the PA shut down the network's Ramallah office after it aired footage of a demonstrator waving a shoe at a picture of Arafat. The office remained closed for three days until, reportedly, Arafat himself ordered it reopened. Walid Omari, Al-Jazeera's senior correspondent in Israel and the West Bank, says this was not the first time Palestinian officials had interfered with him or his staff. This January, PA intelligence arrested Al-Jazeera's Gaza correspondent, reportedly for airing a statement by a spokesman of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, the terrorist group tied to Yasser Arafat's Fatah Movement. The group's claim of responsibility for two recent suicide bombings in Tel Aviv and its criticism of Fatah are thought to have upset PA officials.

A Palestinian Authority official says its treatment of journalists has improved.

Despite such incidents, Al-Masri, the official with the Palestinian Ministry of Information, says that the PA's treatment of journalists has improved over the past several years. He points to the existence of 150 newspapers and magazines and nearly 50 television and radio stations in the West Bank and Gaza as proof that journalists enjoy greater freedoms under the PA than under the restrictions of many other Middle Eastern governments. Some factions within the security forces are suspicious of the media, he says, but Arafat and other top Palestinian leaders support a free press. "The situation is not very bad, but not very good," he concludes. "Many steps have been taken forward, and we need more of these steps."

Western reporters appear to enjoy greater freedom under the PA than do their Palestinian counterparts. Josh Hammer, Newsweek's Jerusalem bureau chief, says he has never been restrained by Palestinian officials while reporting in the West Bank and Gaza. "I've always found the Palestinian Authority very easy to work with," he says. "I've never had any problems with them. In interviews, they may be evasive or lie. But as far as freedom of movement and access, you can do anything there, really."

This apparently benevolent stance toward Western reporters may be due, in part, to conditions in Palestinian areas, which have changed dramatically since September 2000. During the months after the outbreak of the second intifada, the Israeli army has reoccupied many towns formerly under Palestinian control.

"The PA is not really working any more," explains Emma Blydenstein, a producer for the Dutch television station RTL. "It's complete anarchy. Only around Arafat's compound [in Ramallah] is there a sense of centralized calm." She says she now rarely encounters members of the PA security service when she reports in the West Bank. Al-Jazeera's Omari says, "After the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, there has not been any kind of control from the PA over press and journalists."

Amira Hass, who has spent nearly a decade living and working in Gaza and Ramallah as a correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, says that concern over press freedom has been "dwarfed by the complete militarization of life here" and the Israeli army's record of abuses against journalists. A report released in May 2002 by the Vienna-based International Press Institute maintained that Israelis were responsible for 80 percent of all violations against the press in these areas of conflict between September 2000 and April 2002.

Such findings should not let the PA off the hook, though, argues Walid Batrawi, a writer and radio reporter from Ramallah. Batrawi has worked for a number of foreign media outlets, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the BBC. "Today, the major harassment for Palestinian and foreign journalists is from the Israeli side," he says. "But the percentage done by the Palestinians, in my opinion, still counts." The PA has used the ongoing violence and security concerns as justification for clamping down on journalists, adds Jaber Wishah, deputy director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza City.

Some Palestinian journalists now feel wedged between two sides that both treat them as adversaries. "We've had to struggle against the PA's corruption, nepotism and despotic practices," says Amayreh, who now writes for the Palestine Times, a London-based newspaper. "And in addition to that, we've also had to face the Israelis." The deterioration of the situation in Palestinian areas also presents new risks for journalists. Because of the PA's weak grip on power, it is now easier for militant groups to intimidate them. In May 2001, Newsweek's Hammer and a photographer were detained by a group of militants in the town of Rafah in the Gaza Strip. They were released after four hours.

Hammer says this brief brush with kidnapping didn't faze him. "That experience was unique," he concludes. "It never happened before and it has never happened since."

Journalists also face attack from "thugs in the street."

Others are not so sanguine about the risk posed by militant groups. "The real danger at this time is not from the Palestinian Authority, but from the community and the militant groups," says Batrawi. Due to the breakdown of effective policing in Palestinian areas, he says, journalists also are exposed to intimidation and attacks from what he calls "thugs in the street."

Batrawi points to an incident in early November 2002, when five Palestinian journalists were assaulted as they attempted to report on an explosion that took the lives of three suspected members of Hamas in Gaza City. According to the Palestinian Committee for Human Rights, when reporters arrived at the scene of the explosion, unknown assailants beat them and damaged their cameras.

Ori Nir, a former Ha'aretz reporter, says that some Palestinians' attitudes toward reporters have shifted over the years. During the first intifada, most journalists, including Israelis, were generally seen as allies, he says. "The rules were clear: You don't touch reporters. And you trusted that rule to be kept." The past two years have changed the relationship, though. "Today it's different," he says. "There's a greater deal of suspicion and much greater deal of anger and rogue elements running around. The heightened level of anger and frustration makes it just that much more risky that you'll be subject to some kind of violence."

Batrawi says these threats to reporters from unofficial sources are all the more disturbing because of the difficulty of holding the perpetrators accountable. The PA, by contrast, does occasionally relent in the face of international criticism. After the PA forcibly barred reporters from covering post-September 11 protests, for example, it turned around and publicly announced that it would affirm their safety in areas under its control.

Anthony Löwstedt of the International Press Institute believes that international criticism of the PA's treatment of the press helped spur improvement. He adds, "This does not mean that we should be less vigilant about Palestinian press freedom violations in the future." Some Palestinian journalists say the United States should do more to encourage the PA to tolerate its critics in the media, no matter how radical their views.

Even if the PA does improve its treatment of the press, journalists in the West Bank and Gaza will continue to face challenges posed by working in a war zone. Amayreh, for one, has found more freedom of the press on the Internet than on the streets of Hebron. He says it's unlikely that his newspaper will resume publishing any time soon. "We would reopen if we could regain a semblance of freedom from both the Israelis and the PA," he says. "Now things don't seem to be very promising. Press freedom has become a distant dream."

Dave Gilson is a journalist based in Berkeley, Calif.

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