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