The Telltale Silence of The Post-Oslo Palestinian Press

Lecture for the conference: "A 21st century Dialogue: Media's Dark Age?"
Athens, 24-28 May 1998, Organized by: Women for Mutual Security


by Roni Ben Efrat
Editor of Challenge

The Palestinian Authority oppresses its people and intimidates its press. In what follows I shall give examples of this intimidation, nine in all, picked out of a multitude. But let me say at the start that this fact should not come as a surprise. Oppression may be said to be a corollary of the Oslo agreement. The logic is simple: The strong side, Israel, took advantage of its strength, cutting a deal that gave the weak side, the PLO, as little as possible. The designers of Oslo set up, in other words, a situation where people, a great many people, were bound to oppose the deal they had gotten. Although they lacked the foresight to make real peace, they did foresee the opposition to the nasty, brutish thing that they did make, and they were careful, therefore, to provide the new non-state with a huge police force and plenty of rifles. Imprisonment without trial is the norm. Torture is carried out wholesale. Numerous security organisations vie with one another in extortion, and big brother is everywhere. The curbing of the press is merely a part of
this general picture. The most alarming aspect in the story has been the speed with which the press agreed to lay down its weapon, the pen.

The first acts of oppression

The press was the first to be hit. Arafat arrived in Gaza on July 1, 1994. Twenty-seven days later, forces of the Palestinian Secret Security invaded the offices of Al-Nahar, then the second largest daily in the Territories. They forbade the distribution of Al-Nahar in the West Bank,
Gaza and East Jerusalem. (According to the Oslo accords, in fact, they had no jurisdiction at the time in the West Bank - except for Jericho - nor in Jerusalem, but when it comes to oppression, Israel gives the PA a free hand.) No explanation was given, but it was understood that the
closing of Al-Nahar had to do with the paper's pro-Jordanian tendency. The rest of the Palestinian press hardly covered the event. Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Id, then of B'tselem, initiated a protest demonstration, and eight journalists showed up. Perhaps all the others thought it wouldn't happen to them - They, after all, are not "pro-Jordanian"! The epilogue: Al Nahar began publishing again after several weeks, but it soon collapsed financially. (For the full story Challenge # 27).

Four months later it was the turn of the biggest Palestinian daily, Al-Quds, also published in Jerusalem. On November 18, Authority forces killed fourteen Palestinians during a demonstration at a mosque in Gaza. The opposition party Hamas held a mass rally protesting the massacre. Gaza's Chief of Police, General Ghazi Jibali, sent the press his estimate that 5000 people had attended. To his consternation, Al-Quds preferred the estimate of a foreign press agency, which had counted 12,500. Jibali's response was to keep Al-Quds from entering the Gaza Strip. He simply blocked the papers at the Erez checkpoint for a number of days,
claiming that heavy rain and floods were preventing their distribution. I interviewed the chief editor of Al-Quds, Maruan Abu Zuluf, concerning the strange weather in Gaza. He firmly adherred to his right to publish whatever he saw fit. (Challenge # 29: "Gaza Weatherman"). Ever since that incident, however, Al-Quds has never dared to publish a word contradicting the official Palestinian line. Not even a paid ad.

The third incident involved an independent Palestinian opposition paper called Al-Uma, which was also located in Jerusalem. In the eighties its owners, members of the Khatib family, had put out a left- wing daily, Al-Mithaq, but Israel had closed it down. In January 1995, however,
Israel granted the Khatibs a license for Al-Uma. Four months later the paper published an unflattering cartoon of Arafat. Thirty armed Palestinians, members of Preventive Security, entered the print shop and confiscated the plates. The angry editors alerted human rights
organizations. Palestinian figures signed a petition. On May 3rd, the offices of Al-Uma were burned. The Khatibs never went back to publishing (Challenge # 32).

Self Censorship

Since these incidents, the Palestinian Authority has licensed quite a few new media projects. Some of these function as mouthpieces for the Authority - for example, Al Khayat al Jadida or the radio station, Sout Falastin. All, however, mouthpieces or not, practice strict self-censorship. This may seem odd at first, because the Authority itself, with super-democratic panache, forgoes all official censorship. O June 25, 1995, Arafat signed the Palestinian Press Law, which guarantees the right to freedom of opinion and a free press. It does contain, nonetheless, several vague and potentially restrictive provisions. Article 37(3), for example, prohibits the publication of anything that "may cause harm to national unity".(Human Rights Watch, op. cit.) In reality, censorship Arafat-style has proved to be more zealous and harsh than Israel's ever was. To quote the Authority's radio director, Ali Khayan: "The opposition can express its own opinions, but some things are not allowed because we need time to explain what it means to be democratic." (Challenge # 32.)

Under Israeli occupation Palestinian journalists did indeed suffer from oppression. There are stories of chief editors, in house arrest, who edited major dailies from their homes. Numerous journalists were kept in Administrative Detention for renewable periods of six months at a time.
But such measures did not intimidate them. When they got out, they went back to their work. Today it is different. Why?

First, there are no rules.

During the period of direct Israeli occupation, every Palestinian editor had to send the entire paper to the censor. (The Israeli media, in contrast, only have to send articles that relate to security). The censor would send the Arab paper back, marking what had to go. The censor
decided what was fit to print. There was no guesswork, and there were no personal reprisals.
Today Palestinian editors have to guess what might not be accepted, and if they guess wrong, they find themselves in trouble. According to the data of Human Rights Watch /Middle East (Vol. 9, No. 10, Sept. 1997), in the first two years of self rule, 25 journalists and photographers
"guessed wrong." One of them was Fayez Nur-A-Din, a photograher forAgence France Press. He photographed some boys washing a donkey in the sea at Gaza. This was a bad guess. The Special Intelligence Service detained him for ten hours on May 13, 1996. They beat him and whipped him, accusing him of being in the pay of French intelligence in order to "harm the image of the Palestinians." The donkey, it seems, should have been a Jagur. In the report cited above, Human Rights Watch / Middle East gave many examples of self censorship. Most of the journalists were afraid to give the researchers their names. "The problem," said one, "is not that Arafat doesn't want this or that item to be published. The problem is, journalists are afraid that maybe he won't like it - so they just stay quiet."

"Frankly," said another, "we wish the Authority would tell us exactly what we can and cannot publish. That would be easier. It seems that it is impossible to talk about the security apparatus, or violations relating to trials, prisons, and torture, or the president. The president is sacred."

The latest story of this kind is that of Abbas Momani, a photographer working both for Reuters and Al-Quds. The Authority had attributed the death of Hamas bomb-maker Muhi a-Din Sharif, "Engineer # 2," to a dispute within Hamas. It claimed that Hamas leader Adel Awadalla had killed Sharif. Shortly after the Authority made this accusation, photographer Momani received a phone call telling him to go to a flat in Ramallah. Here he received a video cassette, in which a masked man claiming to be Adel Awadalla denied having killed Sharif. He brought the cassette to his manager, Paul Holms, and they discussed whether or not to air it. Holms took full responsibility, and the video was distributed and broadcast on April 8. The Authority found the video believable enough to change its story, blaming Adel's brother instead. (See Challenge # 49.) But it also closed the Reuters office in Gaza. On April 9, photographer Momani received an order to come for investigation to the office of Preventive Security Chief, Jibril Rajoub. When Rajoub heard, however, that Paul Holms was going to accompany him, he cancelled the meeting. Instead, Momani was arrested by another security branch the next day - then released. On May 5 he was arrested again, this time by Rajoub's men. Four days later, at 3 a.m. he escaped by jumping from a third-floor window of the interrogation building, breaking his leg, and in this condition he managed to reach the hospital. His brother came to help him, and Momani told him how they had hung him by his legs from the ceiling and whipped him with electric cables. (The report was later confirmed by human rights activist, Bassem Id.) They had wanted him to confess, said Momani, that he himself had made the video. His brother helped him leave the hospital for another flat, but here Rajoub's men caught up with him, arresting him again. As to how they treated him after that, we do not yet know - he was released on May 14, a day before this writing.   

According to the Israeli weekly, Kol Ha-Ir, neither of Momani's employers, Reuters or Al-Quds, reported his first arrest. Nor did any of the Palestinian media. After his escape, most continued to ignore the issue. Journalists Michal Schwartz and Diana Mardi, from our "sister
paper" in Arabic, Al-Sabar, contacted Paul Holms of Reuters. He told Schwartz that the agency was following his case, and that it had put out a statement on May 6 for "whoever wanted to publish it." Mardi asked the editor of Al-Quds, Maher al-Sheikh, why his paper had failed to print a word on the matter, seeing that Momani is one of their journalists. He
answered: "Our paper doesn't publish news of that sort." Mardi pressed him: "Of what sort"? The editor answered: "News concerning arrests on the part of the PA." "Why not?" she asked him. He answered: "Because we are afraid. We are afraid of the authorities." (From an interview on May 11, 1998, published in Al-Sabar.)

The Momani story brings us to the second reason for self censorship.

Second, the journalist stands alone.

Momani stood alone.

Here is an earlier example. At midnight on December 24, 1995, Al-Quds was about to print an article on page eight about Arafat's meeting with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. A phone call came, in which editor Maher Alameh was instructed to move the piece up to page one. (How, by the way, could the Authority have known exactly what was to be printed on which page?)
In a moment of exceptional courage and resolution, Alameh refused. He was arrested and imprisoned in Jericho for five days. Not a single Palestinian newspaper, including Al-Quds, reported the case. (Human Rights Watch/Middle East, op. cit.). After Alameh's release, he refused to talk about the matter.

In the post-Oslo situation, when you stick your neck out as Alameh did, you're practically alone. Pre-Oslo you were a hero, part of a fighting people. Solidarity was widespread. The atmosphere was such that if you hadn't served time in an Israeli prison, something was wrong with you. Since the entry of the Palestinian Authority, however, most opposition factions have been co-opted, or else they are looking for ways to be co-opted. The atmosphere is one of fear and despair. No lawyer can protect you when you are taken in the middle of the night to be
interrogated, say, in Jericho. Nor does it help if you work for a foreign news agency. The agencies want to keep their offices running. This (partially) explains why journalists, who were in the forefront of the Intifada, have retired into the woodwork.

Other kinds of media

Does this mean that Palestinians don't know what is happening? No. They can get information from Israeli radio and television. Ever since the Oslo process began, however, Israel's media have either avoided or played down Arafat's violations of human rights. The Israeli establishment
measures him, after all, by the strength with which he curbs the opposition. It is remarkable, for example, how quickly most of the Israeli press adopted, one after another, the Authority's changing versions of how Hamas Engineer # 2 was killed, although no account withstands the slightest examination. (Challenge # 49.)

Despite the lack of an uncompromising press, alternative Palestinian channels have opened occasionally, but they too have encountered interference.

The Palestinian National Council (PLC) is an elected Parliament. Each member represents a constituency. One cannot simply arrest him or her without, as it were, gagging a whole group of voters. This fact provides PLC members with a measure of freedom to speak. It was the Council, for example, which exposed the astonishing scope and depth of corruption in the Authority. (Challenge # 43 # 45) The Palestinian papers did not dare publish what the elected representatives had revealed. Journalist Amin Abu Warda told People's Rights (a human-rights monthly of the organization, Land and Water):"The print media avoided reporting on Council sessions right from the start. Editors consistently censored reports about the sessions, especially when the members criticised Arafat or his associates." (March 1997.) But outside media could and did. Stories appeared in Al-Sabar and Challenge, and later in the Hebrew daily Ha'aretz. The Ha'aretz article was translated into Arabic, and circulated in the Territories like an underground leaflet.

The Council legislators fought for the right to have their sessions broadcast directly. They finally won this at the beginning of 1997. Viewers watched with interest. Too much, it appears. All through March, April and May ,when corruption was on the agenda, all kinds of static broke out on the screen. The manager of the broadcasting company, Da'ud Kuttab, complained about this to the Washington Post. He found himself in jail for a week. The broadcasts have not resumed.

Another path that seemed relatively free was that of local cable TV. The channels carry many open discussion programs, in which people can speak out. During the recent Gulf Crisis, these talk shows were very popular and militant. They too were forced to close, however, after the U.S. pressured Arafat to stop showing solidarity with Iraq.

The story of the Palestinian press is sad, if not demeaning. But one can hardly expect to find a free and thriving press alongside a regime that is basically scared of its people. The press will stand on its feet only when Palestinians face the fact that their current leadership cannot be
reformed and that peace must be re-negotiated. Only then will it be possible for a democratic sovereign state to arise, one with enough self-confidence to tolerate pictures of children washing donkeys in the sea of Gaza.

Roni Ben Efrat
Editor of Challenge
Ma'agalei Yavne 7/23
Jerusalem 93582 , Israel
Tel&Fax 972-2-6792270
e-mail: odaa@p-ol.com
(Source: INFOPAL)

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