Pales­tinian me­dia on the front line

Jour­nal­ists in the West Bank and Gaza strug­gle to get their mes­sage across while fac­ing vi­o­lence and in­tim­i­da­tion from all sides


AN EX­PLO­SION this week wrecked the Gaza bureau of the Saudi-owned Al Ara­biya television sta­tion. Staff had re­ceived threats from Ha­mas sup­port­ers af­ter Al Ara­biya had em­bar­rassed Prime Min­is­ter Is­mail Haniyeh by re­lay­ing a “blas­phe­mous” re­mark he made when he thought the mi­cro­phones were switched off.

Last Oc­to­ber, two Pales­tinian gun­men shot Osama Silwadi, a Ra­mal­lah pho­tog­ra­pher, as he watched a Fatah demon­stra­tion. The bul­lets dam­aged his spine. Three months later he is in an Is­raeli re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tre and is un­likely to walk again.

Mo­hammed Za’anoun, a pho­tog­ra­pher for Ma’an, an in­de­pen­dent Pales­tinian news agency, was shot in the head by an Is­raeli sniper while cov­er­ing a skir­mish in the Gaza Strip in July. He spent three months in hospi­tal and is go­ing back for plas­tic surgery.

Th­ese were not iso­lated in­ci­dents. Dozens of Pales­tinian jour­nal­ists who cover Gaza and the West Bank for the lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional me­dia, are ha­rassed from all sides: by Is­rael and the Pales­tinian Author­ity, but also by Fatah and Ha­mas. The Ha­mas vic­tory in last Jan­uary’s elec­tions and the en­su­ing chaos ex­ac­er­bated their prob­lems.

The Is­raelis deny many Pales­tinian jour­nal­ists press cards that would help them through check­points. They are at the mercy of ev­ery dis­grun­tled or trig­ger-happy sol­dier. When the army goes into Gaza, Pales­tinian jour­nal­ists feel es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble.

Hazem Badarou, Abu Dhabi television’s correspondent there, com­plained: “The Is­raeli sol­diers re­spect the Is­raeli jour­nal­ists, but they don’t re­spect the Pales­tini­ans. Dur­ing mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions there is no guar­an­tee that we will be safe.”

The only Pales­tinian jour­nal­ists is- sued Is­rael press cards are those who live in East Jerusalem. Al Jazeera has 51 staff work­ing out of Ra­mal­lah, Gaza and Jerusalem. Only 13 have press cards. “It cre­ates a big ob­sta­cle for us to move within the West Bank and from the West Bank to Gaza,” said Walid al Omari, the bureau chief.

Daniel Sea­man, di­rec­tor of the gov­ern­ment press of­fice, re­sponded: “We is­sue press cards for peo­ple cov­er­ing the state of Is­rael. Those who live in East Jerusalem get cards. But we have no re­spon­si­bil­ity for the au­ton­o­mous ar­eas of the Pales­tinian Author­ity.”

The Pales­tinian po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment re­sents in­de­pen­dent re­port­ing or crit­i­cism. “Both sides, Fatah and Ha­mas, want you to be with them and against the other,” said Ra’ed Oth­man, Ma’an chief ex­ec­u­tive. “Some­times we get threats, es­pe­cially from Ha­mas. They pub­lish our names and phone num­bers. A lot of peo­ple write in that they’ll cut off our heads. They say we are against Is­lam.”

Fatah ac­tivists, who ac­cused Al Jazeera of favour­ing Ha­mas, set fire to a mo­bile stu­dio and Mr Omari’s car out­side the sta­tion’s Ra­mal­lah head­quar­ters. “Ha­mas and Fatah wage a cam­paign of provo­ca­tion against Al Jazeera and some­times against me per­son­ally,” he protested.

In Gaza, Pales­tinian gun­men have twice at­tacked Saif Ed­din Sha­heen, an Al Ara­biya correspondent, beat­ing him with ri­fle butts. The per­pe­tra­tors, whom he iden­ti­fied as mem­bers of the se­cu­rity ser­vice, were never charged.

Un­til re­cently, al­most all Pales­tinian me­dia was gov­ern­ment or party-con­trolled. But spurred by the suc­cess of Al Jazeera and the in­ter­net, pri­vately-owned me­dia such as the Ma’an agency, they have ven­tured into the mar­ket.

They are still strug­gling to con­sol­i­date their in­de­pen­dence. The politi­cians are flat­ter­ing when they want to get their mes­sage across, men­ac­ing when they don’t like what they pub­lish. Donia al-Watan’s Gaza of­fice has twice been trashed af­ter it ac­cused Ha­mas min­is­ters of cor­rup­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to Khaled Abu Toameh, who cov­ers Pales­tinian af­fairs for the Jerusalem Post, Pales­tinian jour­nal­ists are still ex­pected to be foot sol­diers of the revo­lu­tion. “I find it sad,” he re­flected, “that as an Arab-Mus­lim jour­nal­ist, the only place I can ex­press my­self with no lim­i­ta­tions is a Jewish pa­per.”

Pales­tinian po­lice in­spect the bombed-out of­fices of Al Ara­biya on Mon­day

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