Power and the press

By MATTHEW GUTMAN
June 22, 2006 13:22

The media have become the latest battleground in the struggle between the Islamic Hamas and nationalist Fatah parties.




Throughout his 20 years in journalism, Majdi Arabeed's only weapon was his mouth. But these are hard times for Palestinian journalists, both courted and condemned as the war for public support intensifies. So Arabeed, the owner and manager of Gaza's al-Hurriya Radio, has bought a gun, he says, plunking an AK-47 on his desk as evidence. Death threats from militants claiming to represent the Islamic group Hamas strong-armed Arabeed to order al-Hurriya's reporters off the streets, arm himself and hire the two most mountainous bodyguards money can buy. Hamas may have won the January elections, but it is currently locked in a power struggle with the former ruling party, Fatah, which has left about 20 people dead - including a dazzling array of top Palestinian security commanders - and dozens wounded in the past two months. In Gaza, where the sword is mightier than the pen, the media have become the latest battleground in the struggle between the Islamic Hamas and nationalist Fatah parties. So far, no journalists have been seriously hurt in the war to win the hearts and minds of Palestinians, but intimidation compelled some media outlets like al-Hurriya to slash news broadcasts, and has sufficiently frightened some writers enough to cause them to lay down their pens. In Gaza's mosques, Hamas clerics are denouncing some media as traitorous, and though Hamas leaders in turn denounce the threats, they have taken no action to stop them. They openly accuse independent and Fatah-related media of courting civil war and in recent weeks, journalists or media outlets deemed to have an anti-Hamas bent have not been merely subjected to phoned or e-mailed death threats. On June 4, assailants sacked the Palestine TV bureau in Khan Yunis, torching expensive satellite equipment. But intimidation of the Palestinian press is hardly new. Former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004, clapped in jail dozens of journalists and prominent dissidents who dared speak their minds. Back then, the rules were clear. "You ran into trouble when you wrote about [Arafat] or national security, that's all," says Arabeed. Arafat's bullying of the press sought to check criticism against him. He used the state-run media to tighten his white-knuckle grip upon his triumphant return to the West Bank and Gaza as part of the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords. For over a decade the Palestinian press was the sole domain of the Fatah party, and many media outlets are still headed by secular or Fatah-affiliated journalists or Fatah technocrats. They all became experts at navigating the group's hierarchy and maneuvering around the shoals of the PA's various intelligence branches. DURING Arafat's time, says Lynn Tehini, the Middle East desk officer for Reporters Without Borders, a journalists' rights watchdog, reporters knew the risks. They also knew their adversaries: the IDF and Arafat's intelligence forces. A 1996 Palestinian law sought to protect journalists and enshrine the rights of free speech but did little to prevent self-censorship, says Basem Ezbidi, a political science professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank. And a 10-year-old piece of toothless legislation passed by a lame duck Palestinian parliament does little to protect journalists now feeling their way through a new, Hamas-dominated government. Reporters Without Borders say they fear unsanctioned violence against reporters could erupt spontaneously; and the situation is only getting worse. In 2005, the Palestinian territories ranked 132 in the RWF Worldwide Press Freedom Index, a ranking of press freedoms in 167 countries. That ranking put the West Bank and Gaza ahead of Sudan and Mexico but behind "free-er" countries like Afghanistan. This year, the Palestinian ranking will slide further down towards the bottom, snugly near Iran, Eritrea, Turkmenistan and North Korea, says Tehini. As opposed to those countries, where the government strangles freedom of expression and the press reports only official government propaganda, in the Palestinian territories, control is too diffuse, explains Tehini. "Here, you have little gangs and each thinks about his own interests," Tehini continues. "Hamas does not control the gangs that threaten journalists… There is anarchy there and the situation is very volatile." Hamas's wresting control of the media mirrors Arafat's tactics, but its strategy is long term, says Ezbidi. Controlling the content of information beamed to Palestinians is part of the crusade to Islamicize them. The three ingredients for control of the Palestinians are guns, the media and money, says Muhammad Yaghi, an expert in Palestinian politics and a columnist for the Palestinian al-Ayyam newspaper. Hamas has guns and is smuggling more in, is fortifying its presence in the media. But it lacks cash - the United States, Israel and other nations have boycotted Hamas and frozen the government's funding. For its part, Israel refuses to release tens of millions of dollars in Palestinian tax revenue to the Hamas government, depriving it of a key source of power. Ghazi Hamid, the Hamas government spokesman, says the threats are the work of "troublemakers," not genuine Hamas militants. However, in an interview in his Gaza office, he accuses "those media of trying to increase the hatred" between the factions. To solve the impasse, he says his government is working on a document to set out reporting guidelines for editors. MEDIATION with the Hamas government may be too late for some. "I was getting 50-70 death threats a day for three weeks," says al-Hurriya's Arabeed. Four of his 32 staffers quit because of the threats, he adds, most of whom received threats of the "I know-where-you-live" variety on their mobile phones. So in May, after six years of continuous live news coverage, he directed his staff to broadcast only the headlines ripped from news wires. "It would be irresponsible to keep reporters in their beats," he explains. Known for their eye-witness coverage, his reporters had covered Hamas-Fatah clashes too zealously, and are now all paying the price, he says. On June 1, al-Hurriya's reporters returned to the airwaves, but something was different. Arabeed ordered them to omit any mention of Hamas. So if Prime Minister Ismail Haniya holds a press conference announcing a government decision, al-Hurriya will note the decision but won't report where it came from. Arabeed concedes that this is bad reporting, but contends it's the only way to continue reporting and avoid more trouble. When advertising flags, Arabeed helps shoulder al-Hurriya's $300,000 a year running costs. He doubles as a cameraman for Israel's Channel 10 and also owns an advertising agency. An FM station, al-Hurriya is broadcast in the West Bank and Gaza and is the second most popular station in the West Bank and Gaza after the Voice of Palestine, according to a poll by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center. But these days, the station feels more like a speakeasy than a major news organization. A visitor rides an elevator to the 13th floor in one of downtown Gaza's few skyscrapers. He buzzes an intercom. Through a peephole, a guard gruffly demands the purpose of the visit. The door creaks open - there is no door handle. Inside, aimless reporters hang around and smoke. Sound technicians - the only people working - twist dials and slide levers on a huge sound board, cross-fading one jaunty pop song into another. Arabeed concedes that morale is low. Lines are etched deeply on his brow - in person he looks older than his 40 years. He has filmed countless demonstrations and dozens of clashes between Israel and the Palestinians and has nine bullet wounds to show for it. The last shooting was captured on Channel 10 news in January 2005. "But I never thought the next bullet might come from a Palestinian," he says. HE IS NOT alone. Muhammad Dahudi, director general of Palestine TV, says he gets 20 calls a day from people calling themselves Hamas militants. They threaten to knee cap, dismember and plug him full of lead for his station's allegedly biased reporting. When his wife heard a sermon on the radio fulminating against him last week, he realized it was time to change his telephone numbers. Two days after the violence erupted on Gaza's streets in early May, Dahudi gathered his 57 reporters for a talk. "I reminded them of the first rule of journalism - stay alive. Then I told them to be extra sure there's no bias in their work." The talk proved futile. On June 4, gunmen raided the Palestine TV bureau in Khan Yunis, firing off rounds into TV equipment and beating two of the employees, according to news reports. Palestine TV is a branch of the Palestinian Authority Information Ministry - a body now controlled by Hamas. Complaints to his superiors at the ministry were met with advice that he should be more favorable to Hamas, says Dahudi. He then dialed PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to complain. The president told him to keep his head down; there wasn't much else Abbas could offer. Many of the 33 Palestinian TV stations, 20 radio stations and 19 or so newspapers have been threatened. It's not clear exactly how many. The staff at Fatah-affiliated Shabab radio in Gaza is also flooded with death threats, according to its director, Hamza Abu Reisha. Unlike al-Hurriya's Arabeed, Dahudi refuses to change Palestine TV's programming, arguing that his satellite station gives all Palestinians a chance to be heard. Crinkling his nose, he says "that would be bad journalism." His phone began ringing day and night after Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri accused Dahudi's Palestine TV of fomenting civil war in an interview with the Qatar-based Arabic satellite channel, al-Jazeera. "I called [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] to complain," says Dahudi. "He just told me to be careful." Most Palestinians get their news from al-Jazeera, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Still, with 29% using it as their primary news source, Palestine TV is no small prize. "This is the big game," says Hazen Abu Shanab, a communications lecturer at Gaza's Al Azhar University. "Both parties want to control the media." Abu Shanab, a Fatah-affiliated academic who frequently writes op-ed articles, has reduced his own writing by 90%. "I prefer to be killed fighting the occupation, not publishing an article," he adds. GAZA'S ATMOSPHERE is dense with the rhythmic popping of assault rifles punctuated by the thunder of a grenade or IDF artillery battering Kassam launch positions in Gaza's north. Caught in the churning violence and intrigue, the Palestinian audience's appetite for news has grown. Some are beginning to notice the diluted news broadcasts. One of them is Mahmud al-Hozandar, who owns one of Gaza City's renowned humous spots. "We listen every half hour. We need to know what's going on." Hozandar listens to the secular al-Hurriya and the Hamas-affiliated al-Aqsa radio stations to hear both sides. "That's the only way you can know the truth," he says. But with al-Hurriya hobbled, he feels cheated out of a major source of news. "But then again, there is no such thing as an independent Palestinian media outlet," he says. Abu Shanab agrees, saying Gaza feels more like Baghdad these days. But unlike many others, he hasn't been threatened. Neither has Muhammad Abu U'un, director of the Hamas-affiliated al-Aqsa radio. In a telephone interview, he seems astonished by the threats to his colleagues. "We have had no intimidations. We are doing very well in Gaza these days," he says. "Who would threaten us," he wonders aloud. Fatah is also not above pressuring the media. Following an assassination attempt on the Palestinian general intelligence chief on May 20, Fatah members prevented foreign and local crews from filming the intelligence headquarters and even stole some crews' film at gunpoint. The Foreign Press Association of Israel and the Palestinian territories issued an official complaint. Then on May 22, three cars parked in the al-Jazeera lot in Ramallah were torched. Fatah members claimed revenge for the satellite channel's failure to cover one of its rallies, according to wire reports. Dahudi forecasts a bleak future ahead for the Palestinian press. "We are going to be a new Somalia," he predicts. "Welcome."


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