Ramattan news agency shuts down in response to raids

Major Palestinian news agency accuses PA of waging intimidation campaign.

Ramattan, one of the largest Palestinian news agencies, accused the Palestinian Authority on Sunday of waging a campaign of harassment and intimidation against its staff in the West Bank. The independent agency, which has several offices in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, was established 10 years ago and has since been providing satellite, production and editing services to many foreign TV stations and media outlets. The agency employs nearly 200 people. The agency's managers decided to close down all its West Bank offices and suspend its Web site after PA security officers loyal to PA President Mahmoud Abbas raided Ramattan's headquarters in Ramallah and summoned eight employees for interrogation. The entire home page of Ramattan was colored black, and an announcement published in Arabic said the agency had decided to suspend work in protest against the harassment experienced by its offices in the West Bank - a reference to the raid by Abbas's security forces. However the agency's English-language Web site said the decision to suspend work had been taken in protest against the "relentless harassment and unyielding complications placed upon Ramattan by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, on top of the already more than difficult conditions faced from working in Occupied Palestine." The English announcement continued, "In our tenth year, we are proud to hold our heads up high for having maintained a clean name as an unbiased source for news-gathering from the occupied territories. "It is with great disappointment that in our tenth year we have had to make the choice to strike as a last resort to the relentless and heightened persecution of Ramattan by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and Israel. "We are unwelcomed and lack aid from all sides and are given no compensation for the tribulations we have faced in having our equipment damaged, our offices held hostage by Israeli and PA forces, and face constant threats from Hamas. We are an agency composed of 200 dedicated individuals with different beliefs who work together for the sole purpose of being a recognized and respected Palestinian company and on this day, after years of struggle, we feel the urgency in taking a stand against the unjust treatment we have received." Palestinian journalists said the PA was searching for an excuse to close down Ramattan "because its offices in the Gaza Strip were being used as a platform by Hamas." They pointed out that Hamas leaders often hold press conferences at the Ramattan headquarters in Gaza City and that the agency sometimes broadcast live coverage of events organized by the Islamist movement. The offices of Ramattan in the West Bank have been raided several times by PA policemen over the past few months. In the most recent incident, the PA policemen demanded the agency's managers provide them with a "good conduct certificate," issued only by the PA's General Intelligence Force and a prerequisite for renewing its license. Scores of Palestinian journalists staged a demonstration in Gaza City Sunday to protest against the campaign against Ramattan and other journalists in the West Bank. Shahdi al-Kashef, one of the directors of Ramattan, said that Abbas's security forces had also confiscated one of the agency's vehicles in the West Bank for no reason. He said the arrest of journalists was a flagrant violation of the freedom of the media. In a related development, PA security forces arrested Sunday Muhammad Shtaiwi, bureau chief of the Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa TV station. Shtaiwi is the seventh journalist to be arrested by Abbas's security forces in the past few months. Many Palestinian journalists working in the West Bank are under pressure from the PA security forces to avoid publishing material that reflected negatively on Abbas or the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. Some journalists said they had been summoned to the offices of the PA General Intelligence in Ramallah where they warned not to express views that were "sympathetic" to Hamas.