Richard Melson

January 2006


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Jerusalem Issue Brief

Institute for Contemporary Affairs founded jointly at the:

Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 5, No. 14 – 2 January 2006

The Continuing Struggle of Palestinian Journalists

for Freedom of the Press in the Palestinian Authority

Khaled Abu Toameh

Three years ago I began writing a daily report for the Jerusalem Post. The irony is that, as an Arab Muslim, I feel freer to write for this Jewish paper than I do for any Arab newspaper. I have no problem writing for any Arab newspaper if it will provide me with a free platform and not censor my writing. My editors at the Jerusalem Post do not interfere with my writing.

When Arafat arrived in Gaza in 1994, there was a lot of hope that now Palestinians would have a free media like the Jews have. Unfortunately, the first thing the PLO did when they arrived was to order an immediate crackdown, not on Hamas or Islamic Jihad but on the Palestinian media. The result was that many local Palestinian journalists – including those who were working with Reuters, AP, those who had independent press offices – had their offices torched. Some of them were arrested, some were beaten, some had their equipment confiscated. It was even sadder to see how the foreign media did not really cover the story.

The "Arab Regime" Mentality of the PLO Media

Why was there a crackdown? Because those who came with Arafat from Tunis came with a different mentality. They did not live here. Most of them had never spoken to an Israeli Jew in their lives. As such, they came with what could be called an "Arab regime" mentality, the mentality of Gamal Abdul Nasser, the mentality of Arab dictatorships. They wanted to make sure that the Palestinian media was 100 percent under control. They secured control by appointing editors, by closing down newspapers, and by funding competing newspapers.

Jibril Rajoub, for example, ordered a crackdown on the pro-Jordanian An-Nahar newspaper in Jerusalem and closed it down. Another newspaper, edited by the Khatib family, which had been operating with an Israeli license between 1967 and 1994, had its offices burnt down, and the publisher fled to London.

Today there are three major Palestinian newspapers: Al-Quds, which is privately owned, and Al-Hayam and Al-Hayat al-Jadeeda, which are funded by the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians also have an official TV station, which for many years was no different from the rest of the media under Arab dictatorships, a media that represents the official line all the time.

Palestinians are sick and tired of turning on Palestinian TV and watching what their president did and what their prime minister did that day. They open a Palestinian newspaper to find a major story on the front page about how "his excellency the president, may God protect him and prolong his life, today received a cable of support from the deputy chairman of the students’ union in the southern province of Sudan." This can’t really be a major story.

In 1995, under Arafat, AFP sent a photographer out into the streets of Gaza to take a picture of ordinary life, and he came back with a picture of children playing with a donkey on the beach. When the picture was published, the photographer was arrested the same day and beaten up. PA officials told him: "Are you trying to represent us as a donkey?" In another incident, an editor was arrested for failing to publish a story about Arafat on page one.

There have been some positive changes towards a freer Palestinian media because there are many good and professional journalists out there. Not all Palestinian journalists see themselves as foot soldiers serving the revolution or the leadership. In fact, most of the journalists I know have no role in the Arab media, but instead work in the foreign media.

Reporting from the Palestinian Street

Many of my foreign colleagues have tended to ignore the voice of the man in the street, but it is not enough to interview this or that official. To understand what the Palestinians are really thinking, you need to sit in the cafes. There were days when I would go to Nablus, for example, and I would hear Palestinians telling me, "You know what? We really hope the Jews will come back and reoccupy Nablus. It’s not because we love Israel, but because we’re fed-up with the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian corruption."

The foreign media did not pay enough attention to stories about corruption in the Palestinian areas, or to stories about abuse of human rights, to all that was really happening under the Palestinian Authority. They did not want to pay attention to the growing frustration on the Palestinian street as a result of mismanagement, as a result of the abuse of power, as a result of monopolizing of power by the PLO.

An Intifada Against the Palestinian Authority?

The intifada that began in September 2000 did not break out because there was a real threat to the Al-Aksa mosque. This intifada was supposed to be directed first and foremost toward the Palestinian Authority, and that’s where things were heading. If you look at the weeks before the intifada, for the first time we were beginning to see signs of mutiny. Palestinians began attacking Palestinian Authority security installations in Nablus, Ramallah, Tulkarm, and Jenin. For the first time you would see Palestinians talking on TV about corruption in the Palestinian Authority. So I think Arafat began to feel the heat under his feet and saw an opportunity to divert all this frustration and anger toward someone else.

When President Bush announced his boycott of Arafat in 2001, suddenly you saw more and more Palestinians speaking out. Suddenly the talk about corruption was no longer taboo and suddenly demands for reforms and democracy and a free media were everywhere.

The PA Media Under Abu Mazen

Have things now changed with regard to the media under a Palestinian Authority led by Abu Mazen? Unfortunately, no. In the three major newspapers you used to see Yasser Arafat’s picture on the front page and now you see Abu Mazen’s, but you don’t see a change in the content. You don’t feel that the Palestinian journalists are really free to write what they want.

Many Palestinians hope for better times, but I don’t see real changes. In fact, I see very worrying signs. Under Abu Mazen there was a written order issued by the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate that forbids Palestinian journalists from reporting on internal clashes. Under Abu Mazen there is a written directive that says cameramen are not allowed to take pictures of masked gunmen marching with their guns in the streets.

Law and Order in Gaza

Gaza today is controlled by armed militias. The Palestinian Authority pays the salaries, but the gunmen control the streets. You don’t know who’s hiding behind the mask in Gaza. A hundred and fifty gunmen can surround a house and snatch a general from his home in his pajamas and shoot him in the street just outside Abu Mazen’s office, and no one saw anything and there is not even one eyewitness. It’s a very dangerous situation. Abu Mazen has not done anything – and I don’t even think he can – to stop this phenomenon. Almost every second person in Gaza has a gun, and this has created a very frightening situation.

The worsening chaos and lawlessness also prevents potential investors from putting their money into Gaza. Palestinian businessmen abroad will not put money into an area where there is no rule of law. In my view, this is the number one issue on the Palestinian agenda these days. Abu Mazen ran on a platform that clearly said: "I am going to fight corruption, anarchy, and lawlessness." One year later, the situation has not changed.

Young Guard vs. Old Guard

Abu Mazen can no longer ignore the young guard who are now openly challenging him, but what is the difference between the young guard and the old guard? What is the difference between Barghouti and Abu Mazen? Abu Mazen believes in the political track, that the only way to achieve something is through negotiations. The young guard believes there should be a two-track policy: negotiations and "resistance," or what Israelis call "terrorism." The young guard is not prepared to give up the military option. So a victory for the young guard is not necessarily a victory for moderate voices. Who won the Fatah primaries in Nablus and Jenin? The commanders of the Aksa Martyrs Brigade, the guys who are carrying the weapons.

The young guard is rushing to take over. Many members of the old guard are leaving the country, moving to Arab states, because they are afraid of the young guard. Abu Mazen is sending signals of weakness. His policy is based on trying to appease everyone – Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah, the old guard, the young guard, Israel, America, the Arab states – and that’s impossible. It’s not going to work.

Fatah and the Palestinian security forces are first and foremost responsible for the anarchy and lawlessness. The Palestinian security forces were never real security forces; they were, and some of them still are, functioning as private militias. According to figures released by the Palestinian Interior Ministry, Fatah and the Palestinian security forces were involved in most of the incidents of violence in the Gaza Strip in the first nine months of 2005.

I believe that the Palestinians in general are a people who want democracy. The Palestinians are among the most educated in the Arab world and they have been exposed both to the Israeli democratic system and to the Western democratic system. Unlike many of the Arab countries, there is an open debate today in Palestinian society. I believe democracy might happen, but not in the near future. As long as you have armed gangs in the streets and as long as the Palestinian security forces are not real security forces and as long as there is no rule of law, you can’t have democracy.

* * *

Khaled Abu Toameh has been senior Palestinian affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post since 2002. Prior to that he wrote for fourteen years for Kol Yerushalayim, a local Jerusalem newspaper owned by Yediot Ahronot, and was the only Arab writing in an Israeli newspaper in Hebrew about the Palestinian areas. He has been Palestinian affairs producer for NBC News since 1988, and has been writing for US News and World Report on Palestinian affairs since 1989. He has produced documentaries for BBC Channel 4, German TV, and Australian TV, among others. He is the co-author of "What Happened to Reform of the Palestinian Authority?" (Jerusalem Issue Brief 3-20, March 2004), with Dan Diker. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on December 1, 2005.

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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

Jerusalem Issue Brief Vol. 5, No. 14

The Continuing Struggle of Palestinian Journalists

for Freedom of the Press in the Palestinian Authority

Khaled Abu Toameh

2006/01/02 Mon