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.
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
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.
Palestinan Authority often tried to silence outspoken Palestinian
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. (AP/Wide World
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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,
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