Manhattan, New York – Palestinian journalists covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inevitably are covering the story of their own lives. As Palestinians, they live under occupation and face the same restrictions on travel as their fellow citizens. Under those circumstances, neutrality would be extremely difficult. Add to that the volatility of current Palestinian politics, and you have conditions that make it particularly precarious to be a Palestinian journalist.
Conditions seemed much better in 1994, when the Palestinian Authority was established. Numerous new media outlets opened, offering Palestinian journalists the chance to cover their own society, under the scrutiny of a Palestinian administration.
In fact, the reality was that the change meant pressure now came from both Palestinian and Israeli authorities. And periodically, when violence intensified on their beat, Palestinian journalists worked in some of the most dangerous conditions in the world.
Press freedom, always tenuous, deteriorated further following the Palestinian elections in 2006 and the resulting polarization between the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas. Hamas’s coup in Gaza in 2007 intensified the feud and increased pressures on the media, creating a polarized atmosphere and new dangers for journalists.
Journalists in the occupied Palestinian territory of Gaza and the West Bank have a long history of working under foreign rule, starting in 1917, when Palestine fell under British control after four centuries of Ottoman rule. Israel’s creation in 1948 began decades of conflict, and Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 put in place new restrictions on the territory’s press.
Palestinian newspapers were required to submit to Israeli censorship or risk their publishing permits. Whenever the censor deemed an article a threat to public order, defined in Israeli military Order 101 as “incitement and hostile propaganda,” its publication was prevented or the paper’s distribution was banned.
One example of the severity of the Israeli censorship was seen in 1982, when Israel invaded southern Lebanon. Palestinian newspapers were forced to fill their pages with social news and “noncontroversial” reports that were translated from the Israeli press.
In 1994, the Palestinian Authority was established with limited jurisdiction over parts of the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinian journalists welcomed the authority’s decision not to create an official censor. Many believed they had reached a new era of press freedom. The number of newspapers, magazines, television and radio channels mushroomed, and for four years, Palestinian media operated in relatively free conditions.
In 1998, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed an agreement called the Wye River Memorandum, in which then-President Yasser Arafat issued a decree to “strengthen national unity and forbid incitement.” Although the decree didn’t explicitly target journalists, it defined incitement broadly, and Palestinian security agencies used its broad scope to summon numerous journalists for interrogations about their news coverage. Some were detained for days in security prisons, and when released, they were often arrested by a different security agency, for questioning about the same issue.
Official pressure eased after the second intifada erupted in 2000, but covering the violence in the West Bank proved extremely dangerous. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Information, 15 journalists lost their lives by Israeli fire, most between 2000 and 2004. Palestinian armed groups also began targeting journalists whose coverage was not to their liking, and the Palestinian Authority did little to defend them or to investigate their attackers.
Today, Palestinian journalists are severely hampered by Israeli restrictions that prevent them from travelling freely around the West Bank, gaining access to East Jerusalem or going from the West Bank to Gaza. These restrictions make it difficult to report, said AbdelHafez Ja’wan, an AlArabiya correspondent, “as well as the violence the Israeli forces use, such as live bullets, against our crews.”
Television has the largest audience of all media in the occupied Palestinian territory. A survey by the Ramallah Center for Human Rights Studies in February 2009 showed 63 percent of Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza rely on television for news on local politics. Most, however, get their news from Arab satellite channels, such as AlJazeera and AlArabiya, not from local Palestinian television.
The Palestinian Authority established the first Palestinian television station in Ramallah in 1994. It has been the mouthpiece of Fatah since it was launched. Like most state-run television in Arab countries, the president dominates the headlines, and criticism of the government is rare.
During the second intafada, Israeli tanks have broken into the channel’s Ramallah headquarters at the Palestine Broadcasting Corporation. The Israeli army confiscated equipment and detonated explosives, setting the five-story building on fire and causing half of it to collapse.
As part of an intensifying war for hearts and minds of Palestinians, the satellite channel AlAqsa was launched in early 2006. The channel is based in Gaza and is run by Hamas. Granting it a license was one of the first decisions Ismail Haniyeh’s Hamas government made. After Hamas’ coup in Gaza, Salam Fayyad’s government repealed the decision, but the channel has continued to broadcast, even after an Israeli aircraft bombed its headquarters in late 2008.
A third channel; AlQuds was established in 2008 by a group of Palestinian businessmen in London. The channel’s stated mission is to highlight the importance of Jerusalem and Palestine to Arab and Islamic nations. Another station, AlFalastinyeh, booked a satellite frequency in 2009, reportedly to create a Fatah counterweight to Hamas’s AlAqsa.
Of more than 24 local television channels, only one broadcasts from Gaza. Ownership of these channels is divided among private individuals, civil society organizations and political parties.
Radio is the second most important medium. In Gaza, where power shortages can limit TV viewing, 26 percent of Palestinians consider radio their primary source of news, compared with 16 percent in the West Bank. Voice of Palestine is a public radio station based in Ramallah. Its transmitters were knocked down by Israeli attacks in 2000 and 2001; it now broadcasts on FM in the West Bank, but has been banned in Gaza by Hamas since mid-2007.
There are 26 other radio stations in the West Bank and about 10 in Gaza. Most of the West Bank stations are owned by businessmen and financed by selling advertisements. In Gaza, half of the stations belong to political parties.
Only seven percent of Palestinians say they rely on daily newspapers for their news. The three major papers combined have less than 50,000 circulation in the West Bank, where all of them are based. None have been allowed to circulate in Gaza since 2009, when the Israeli occupation tightened access.
AlQuds is the oldest and most popular of the dailies. It was established in 1967 and is since printed in occupied East Jerusalem. The paper is privately owned by businessmen, as are the other two major dailies, AlAyyam and AlHayat AlJadeedah. Although there is no official paper of the Palestinian Authority, AlHayat AlJadeedah is closely linked to the Authority and Fatah.
The Palestinian Authority shut down Hamas’s AlRisalah offices in 2007, but the paper is still printed and distributed in Gaza, along with Hamas’s Falasteen and the rival Islamic Jihad AlIstiqlal newspapers.
Another 20 periodicals and weekly newspapers are published in the occupied Palestinian territory. Most have a social and economic focus with little or no political content.
THE DEVIL IN THE DETAILS
In addition to the traditional media outlets, Palestinians get much of their news from the Internet, including the Web sites of Arab satellite channels. Qatar-based AlJazeera’s site is the most popular, followed by AlArabiya’s and to a lesser extent, AlHurra’s Web site. Each relies on different sources for news, including international wire services.
AlJazeera’s original reporting tends to focus on news about Islamic groups. In early February, for example, the channel had an exclusive interview with Anwar AlAwlaki, a radical Muslim cleric from Yemen suspected of connections to the December 2009 attempt to bomb a jetliner bound for Detroit.
AlArabiya’s reporting often focused on Arab Gulf news, such as tensions between Saudi Arabia and the Huthis of Yemen. The channel reported in depth in February on the kidnappings of five Saudis by Huthis and the efforts that eventually led to their release. Compared to AlJazeera’s Web site, AlArabiya’s seemed to make more effort to carry some original reporting.
AlArabiya and AlHurra obviously invested more in frequent updating of news headlines. However, AlJazeera television remained the fastest in getting and breaking the news, especially when it comes to Palestinian or Israeli issues. That may be due to the large staff the channel has in its Jerusalem bureau and the huge network of resources developed during 14 years of operation. AlJazeera has always dedicated at least one news headline a day to the Palestinian issue, not to mention the time it devotes to covering the Palestinian case, which may help explain why the channel captures more than half of the Palestinian audience.
News about American policies towards the Arab and Islamic world were often present on AlArabiya and to a much larger extent on AlHurra. The American-funded and based AlHurra covered more international news than AlJazeera and AlArabiya; AlHurra always presents the U.S. State Department’s perspective on issues.
The assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud AlMabhouh in Dubai and the following investigation occupied much space in all three Web sites in early 2010. “Members of the Palestinian Authority are among AlMabhouh assassins,” AlJazeera’s first headline read on Feb. 15, a headline it may have later regretted as investigators learned more about the assassination. A couple of hours later, the headline was gone, replaced with this: “One former officer in the Palestinian Authority: two Palestinians among AlMabhouh’s assassins.”
“AlJazeera seeks issues that raise controversy in the Arab street,” said Mohammed Daraghmeh, political correspondent for The Associated Press in the occupied Palestinian territory.
“[The media] is not supposed to establish reconciliation between the two parties. It’s not the journalist’s duty to do so, that’s the duty of political parties,” said Walid Omary, AlJazeera Satellite Network Jerusalem bureau chief, in defense of AlJazeera’s coverage. “Responsible media outlets do not incite, they remain distant of hate speech,” he added.
AlArabiya Web site, on the other hand, published: “Suspects include two officers from Hamas government infiltrated by the Mossad: Dubai police reveals assassination details of Hamas leader, Mahmoud AlMabhouh.”
AlHurra’s headline was more ambivalent. The channel reported: “Mutual accusations between Fatah and Hamas after the Dubai declaration on the participation of Palestinians in AlMabhouh killing.”
Nothing reflects the current polarization in the Palestinian media scene better than analyzing AlJazeera and AlArabiya’s reporting of the Palestinian division. The two channels seem to represent opposing stands.
“I feel that now AlArabiya has grown closer to Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in the latest period, because we try to cover such issues from a professional perspective rather than a religious one,” said Ja’wan. “Which also happens to be against what Hamas would prefer.”
With regards to covering the Palestinian division, the two most read Palestinian newspapers, AlQuds and AlAyyam, stand on the same side of the equation, closer to the Palestinian Authority. Although both newspapers are privately owned, AlAyyam shows more sympathy to the Palestinian Authority; at least in its op-eds.
On Jan. 28, AlAyyam reported on an international conference held in Paris to support the Palestinian Authority. In the story, the newspaper explained that the conference supported the Palestinian government plans and calls for continuing aid. When reporting the same story, AlQuds indicated that the donors at the Paris conference said aid to the Palestinian Authority would be conditioned on a Palestinian return to peace negotiations.
Many Palestinians still tune in to the Arabic Israeli Radio. The station outreach is large, and older Palestinians are simply used to listening to it. The Israeli media in general has been focusing on the Iranian nuclear weapons, whether there is a new development or not, and on much more local news.
BETWEEN TWO HAMMERS AND A STONE
Before the Palestinian legislative elections took place in 2006, the challenge Palestinian journalists faced was how to deal with the Israeli and Palestinian authorities, said Omary. “Now the challenge is how to keep a balance in covering the news,” he added.
Since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, journalists in the occupied Palestinian territory suffer as a result of the ongoing division. In the West Bank, Fatah blamed the messenger for its loss in elections, while in Gaza, Hamas treated all those who didn’t openly support it as opponents. Almost three years later, both parties still demand that journalists take sides.
The result is a record of attacks by both groups on journalists. During 2009, more than 35 Palestinian journalists were arrested by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, according to the annual report of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights.
In the West Bank, Palestinian Authority security forces have verbally and physically assaulted journalists during their coverage of demonstrations of solidarity with Gaza in January 2009. In Gaza, the same violations occurred. In October 2009 a journalist with the Palestinian daily AlAyyam was beaten while covering events close to the Islamic University in Gaza. Meanwhile, Hamas forced AlArabiya’s correspondent to leave the strip last February without explaining the reasons.
In July 2009, the Palestinian Ministry of Information in Ramallah issued a decision to close AlJazeera’s Ramallah office, charging the channel with provocation against the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The picture was gloomier in Gaza, where the Hamas government banned reporting on events without prior permission from its interior ministry. In January, the Hamas Minister of Interior banned foreign journalists or their Palestinian translators from writing or publishing stories about the Rafah tunnels before they get his ministry’s approval. Journalists, the decision states, should provide the ministry with a version of such a story before publishing it.
The freedom of the press index in the occupied Palestinian territory in 2009, according to Reporters Sans Frontières was 161 – out of 175 countries the organization tracks. Journalists say pressures have grown so great that some have left to live in Egypt or in Europe.
“What worries me most is supervising the press and taking personal stands of journalists depending on their coverage,” said Daraghmeh. “Those who dare offer independent, criticizing coverage are partially or totally boycotted by the authority, be it in the West Bank or Gaza.”
A newer form of pressure has been exercised against Qatar-based AlJazeera, which has been seen by many Arab authorities as a troublemaker. In recent months, a campaign against the channel in the West Bank has put up posters on main streets claiming that the channel is half owned by an Israeli businessman. The posters also accuse AlJazeera of inciting Fitna, or chaos. A similar campaign against AlJazeera in 2005 resulted in the torching of the station’s cars and equipment.
Despite the campaign, the channel remains popular. But the pressures take a toll, said Omary, the channel’s Jerusalem bureau chief. “What we fought for and achieved in the past decade has vanished in the past four years,” he said.