Palestinian media outlets ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic

Dozens of journalists have been laid off, news stations have closed, making the beginning of 2021 brutal for Palestinian journalists.

Palestinian Journalist Syndicate (photo credit: MEDIA LINE)
Palestinian Journalist Syndicate
(photo credit: MEDIA LINE)
Dozens of journalists have been laid off, news stations have closed, making the beginning of 2021 brutal for Palestinian journalists. 
It’s being called a “media massacre” – probably the worst period in the history of Palestinian journalism. In the first two weeks of 2021 alone, dozens of reporters, camerapersons and technicians have been forced to resign from their jobs; others have been laid off.
Last week, Ajyal, the largest radio station in the Palestinian territories, let go of at least 15 of its top personnel, many of whom have been with the outlet since it went on the air in 1999.
Management blamed the decision on decreasing advertising revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic, and claims it reached an amicable deal with the outgoing employees.
But the employees say they had no other choice but to accept the deal. Ajyal's general manager, Waleed Nassar, did not respond to numerous phone calls from The Media Line.
Many journalists took to Facebook to criticize and call out Nassar, who in response blocked all of them.
On Monday, the newsrooms of the television and radio stations operated by the communications department of An-Najah National University, located in the northern West Bank city of Nablus, were shuttered. Before the closings, management fired at least 17 members of the newsroom staffs.
In a statement, station management said that the decision was made because of "heavy losses."
Palestinian business mogul Bashar Masri is reported to have bought the newsrooms.
The television channel affiliated with the Al-Quds University also laid off at least five people this week, while many other regional and international news outlets are downsizing.
Al-Quds Newspaper, the last Palestinian daily in east Jerusalem, which is facing tremendous financial difficulties, has dismissed about 40 members of its staff.
And more bad news is looming on the horizon.
Laws protecting Palestinian journalists are weak or nonexistent. Many Palestinian journalists work without a contract or under temporary contracts, either on a part-time basis or as freelancers, with little to no benefits.
According to the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, there are about 2,900 journalists, including reporters, editors, camerapersons, and sound engineers, working in the Palestinian territories including east Jerusalem. The average monthly salary is less than $750.
The main source of income for the Palestinian media is from advertisements. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus last year, many Palestinian news outlets have faced major financial difficulties because of a lack of advertising, and many have closed.
The Palestinian Authority ordered a complete shutdown in areas under its control in the West Bank last year at the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak which lasted for about three months. This led to less spending on advertising. 
Nasser Abu Bakr, head of the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, told The Media Line that the syndicate immediately began working with the PA in anticipation of layoffs in the media sector.
Abu Bakr blamed the pandemic and social media for the financial troubles of Palestinian media outlets. He called the millions of dollars spent on advertisements on social media by Palestinian businesses "disastrous."
"These international companies do not pay taxes to the Palestinian government while operating in Palestine," he said of the owners of the social media platforms.
"The coronavirus crisis led to a major financial crisis. As a union, we signed a tripartite agreement with the ministry of labor and the ministry of information to protect the private media sector from the implications of this financial crisis," he said.
The agreement that was reached, according to Abu Baker, allows media outlets to pay half-salaries to its employees for half the amount work, and to resume paying full salaries as soon as the financial hardship is over.
Shadi Zamara, chief editor of Raya Media Network, which also owns a radio station, told The Media Line that "2020 was a black year for Palestinian journalists and media."
Zamara says Palestinian journalists’ options are few.
"There are limited opportunities, large numbers of graduates, and the competition is fierce, which forces the Palestinian journalist to accept work under these (poor) conditions to earn a living."
Zamara concedes that the Palestinian journalist is the weakest link in this equation.
What also complicates the work of the Palestinian journalist, Zamara says, are the internal Palestinian political disputes and the tendencies of private media institutions to satisfy the elite. But he doesn’t absolve the syndicate from failing to stand up for the journalists.
"The Palestinian journalist is the weakest link in this equation. Other unions such as the Syndicate of Doctors, Lawyers and Engineers are much stronger than the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate," he said. 
Ehab Al-Jariri, Editor-in-chief of 24FM Radio in the West Bank city of Ramallah, agrees.
"The Palestinian ministry of labor cannot protect anyone, including journalists. The journalist's relationship with the syndicate is weak. A larger role is required from it," he said.
Last year, Palestinian journalist Eyad Hamad accused The Associated Press of firing him for criticizing the Palestinian Authority. At the time Hamad told The Media Line that the cause for dismissal was an official complaint from the Palestinian Authority police against Hamad.
The AP denies Hamad's assertions.
The case is now pending in court. Other Palestinian journalists also have filed lawsuits in Palestinian courts accusing international news agencies of unfair dismissal.
For many years, Palestinian journalists have faced difficulties on many fronts. They are most afraid, they say, when covering the Israeli military, which they accuse of mishandling and mistreating them while they are doing their job.
"In Palestine, the suffering of the Palestinian journalist is complex: First, there is an Israeli occupation; Second, the Palestinian economy is a small and besieged economy and the companies that are able to finance their advertisements are few in number," Jariri said. 
Journalist Faris Sarafandi, who is also the general manager of 4D Media Production, a satellite, broadcast and film production company, agrees that Palestinian journalists work under many constrains, but says that the Palestinians also are harmed by other regional conflicts.
"As a result, the Palestinian issue is not a top priority to the international media, so the demand for the Palestinian journalist has decreased," he said. 
Also to blame for the layoffs and closures is the sheer number of media outlets, especially radio stations, in the Palestinian territories. In 2019, at least 80 radio stations operated in areas under PA control. At the end of last year, that number had fallen by half. Still, the number of media outlets exceeds the ability of the commercial advertising market to provide adequate financial resources for them. 
These stunning developments are a major setback for the already suffering Palestinian journalism sector.
Mahmoud Hrebat, a journalist based in Ramallah, has called for stronger support for Palestinian journalists.
"The syndicate should play an effective and strong role to protect the journalist and preserve his rights from any violations," he told The Media Line.
Palestinians say it is through the media that they can get their story out to the world. Hrebat says the latest developments will have major repercussions on this messaging.
"The Palestinian cause itself is lost because of the decision to close (media outlets) or layoff journalists. We are on the front lines making sure the occupation violations are recorded and told to the world. We should strengthen the Palestinian media. If our media dies, we all die with it," he said. 
Sarafandi sees a gloomy future for Palestinian journalism.
"The scene is very bleak. And if there are no quick and real actions by Palestinian journalists to save this profession, I think we will reach a day when the Palestinian voice and the Palestinian narrative are absent. It is the most dangerous outcome," he said.