The fallen hope for Palestinian press freedom

Because they ignored how people on the street felt, the foreign media missed the big story.

palestinian boy 88 (photo credit: )
palestinian boy 88
(photo credit: )
When Yasser Arafat and the PLO arrived in Gaza in 1994 there was a lot of hope that the Palestinians would enjoy a free media. However, one of the first thing the PLO did was to order an immediate crackdown on the Palestinian media. Many local journalists - including those working with the international media and those who had independent press offices were targeted. Some were arrested, beaten, their equipment confiscated and offices torched. Sadder still, the foreign media did not really cover the story. 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, like that of Arab dictators. They wanted to make sure that the Palestinian media was 100-percent under control. They secured that control by appointing editors, closing down newspapers and funding competing ones. The PA, 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. THREE YEARS ago I began reporting daily 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 Post editors do not interfere with my writing. Today there are three major Palestinian newspapers: Al-Quds, which is privately owned, and Al-Ayyam 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 that represent the official line all the time. Palestinians are sick and tired of turning on Palestinian TV and watching what their president 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 is obviously not journalism worthy of the name. In 1995, under Arafat, an AFP photographer in Gaza snapped a picture of ordinary life, featuring 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 asked 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. In recent years, however, there has been some positive movement toward a freer Palestinian media because there are many good and professional journalists out there. Fortunately, 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 work instead in the foreign media. Unfortunately, many of my foreign colleagues have tended to ignore the voice of the man in the street, contenting themselves with interviews of this or that official. To understand what Palestinians are really thinking, you need to sit in the cafes and talk to the man on the street. There were days when I would go to Nablus, for example, and 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." For many years, the foreign media did not pay enough attention to stories about corruption in the Palestinian areas, or about abuse of human rights, or, indeed, to what was really happening under the Palestinian Authority. They ignored the growing frustration on the Palestinian street as a result of mismanagement and abuse by the PLO of its monopoly on power. As a result, the media missed the big story: that the intifada that began in September 2000 did not break out because there was a real threat to the Aksa mosque. The intifada was also an expression of frustration directed first and foremost toward the Palestinian Authority, and that's where things were heading. The weeks before the intifada saw, for the first time, the beginnings of a mutiny. Palestinians began attacking PA security installations in Nablus, Ramallah, Tulkarm and Jenin. Palestinians began talking on TV about PA corruption. Arafat began to feel the heat and saw an opportunity to divert all this frustration and anger elsewhere. When President Bush announced his boycott of Arafat in 2001, you saw more and more Palestinians speaking out. Suddenly talk about corruption was no longer taboo and demands for reforms, democracy and a free media were everywhere. HAS PALESTINIAN press freedom increased under Mahmoud Abbas? Unfortunately, no. In the three major newspapers you used to see Arafat's picture on the front page; now you see Abbas's, but you don't see a real change in the content. Many Palestinian journalists are still not really free to write what they want. Though many Palestinians hope for better times, I see very worrying signs. Under Abbas a written order has been issued by the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate forbidding Palestinian journalists to report on internal clashes. The PA has also issued a written directive prohibiting cameramen taking pictures of masked gunmen marching with their guns in the streets. 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. Just outside Abbas's office 150 gunmen snatched a general from his home, in his pajamas, and shot him in the street, and there was not even one eyewitness. Abbas 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 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. Abbas ran on a platform that clearly said: "I am going to fight corruption, anarchy and lawlessness." One year later, the situation has not changed. ABBAS 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 Marwan Barghouti and Mahmoud Abbas? Abbas 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 moderation. 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. Abbas is sending out 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 Palestinian people wants democracy. The Palestinians are among the most educated in the Arab world and they have been exposed to Israel and other Western democratic systems. Unlike in 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 there are armed gangs in the streets, no real Palestinian security forces and no rule of law, there can be no democracy. The writer has been senior Palestinian affairs correspondent for The Jerusalem Post since 2002. This op-ed is adapted from a presentation made to the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem.