Mohammed Manasreh was too good at his job. The 48-year-old Palestinian journalist was hired to edit the news for Al Mahd, a privately owned television station serving the Bethlehem district. Al Mahd (“The Birthplace”) is one of 26 local stations licensed by Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. Many of them are one-man bands. They relay satellite footage from neighboring Arab countries or romantic Egyptian films. They run local news items. And they make money from advertising.
Unlike Israel, the Palestinian Authority has no censorship law. In principle, the media are free to print or broadcast what they like. Mohammed Manasreh took the PA at its word. He filmed Hamas hunger strikers being taken by ambulance to a hospital from a Palestinian prison. The PA responded by locking him up for three hours. Interviewing the Bethlehem police chief, Kemal Sheikh, he asked why he let his men beat people up in the street. That impertinence cost him another two hours of his liberty.
Then the calls started coming in from the multiplicity of competing Palestinian security services (a dozen at the last count). They threatened to put Manasreh in jail if he didn’t stop using a weekly 15-minute commentary spot (“Another View”) to chide Palestinian officials with corruption. When he refused, he says, they phoned his wife and “used bad words.” When that didn’t help, they called his 23-year-old daughter, the eldest of his five children, and repeated the abuse.
Eventually, the security services turned the heat on the station’s owners. They threatened to close the station if the owners didn’t sack their uncooperative editor. “The owners called me in,” Manasreh says. “They said, ‘We don’t want to fire you, but please don’t say anything, good or bad, about the authority.'” A few days later, Palestinian teachers went on strike. Security officers phoned Manasreh and warned him not to mention it on air. “When I didn’t comply,” he says, “the owners fired me. I lost my job because they didn’t want to close the station.”
Manasreh’s tale is part of a pattern of official intimidation, physical and financial, that has silenced almost all criticism of Arafat’s regime in the mainstream Palestinian television, radio and newspapers. “We don’t publish anything that makes the authority angry,” says one senior editor. “We live in a cycle of fear.” When a commission, appointed by Arafat, reported this summer on widespread graft in the authority, the official news agency put out a full, damning text. Half an hour later, the agency withdrew it. Arafat didn’t want it published, editors were told. Instead, the papers printed a four-line statement saying Arafat had received the committee and had praised them for their efforts.
“The Palestinian Authority has taken several steps to frighten journalists,” says Ghassan Khatib, a political commentator who runs a news service for foreign diplomats and correspondents in Jerusalem. “This has created self-censorship. The media cover what the government wants the people to see. The controversies in our society are not reflected. You see the political debate in a minimal way.”
Khatib writes a column for Al Quds, the only independently owned and commercially viable Palestinian daily (circulation 30,000). They stopped printing any column that might embarrass them with the PA. He no longer wastes his time sending them anything contentious. Al Quds also publishes opinion polls, commissioned by Khatib’s Jerusalem Media and Communication Center. The paper censors uncomfortable findings. A poll taken in August, for instance, logged a 5-percent rise in support for suicide bombings, which Arafat had condemned and which drew Israeli sanctions on the Palestinians’ heads. Al Quds played safe and left that question out.
The paper learned its lesson in December 1995, when Maher Alami, its night editor, was summoned to Jericho by the West Bank security commander, Jibril Rajoub, and detained for six days. His offense: failing to put a routine news item about Arafat on the front page. His was not the last such exemplary arrest. Palestinian human rights groups, cited by Human Rights Watch, have monitored at least 25 others.
In May this year, for instance, Daoud Kuttab, a high-profile journalist, was detained in Ramallah for a week. His offense: broadcasting sessions of the Palestinian legislative council live on an educational television station financed by an American foundation. Palestinian legislators, whose only power is to sound off in the council chamber, often challenge Arafat and his ministers, especially over corruption and human rights. The official media and the newspapers put out sanitized summaries. An opinion poll found that 70 percent of viewers liked what Kuttab was showing them. No more debates have been broadcast.
Apart from Al Quds, almost all of the countrywide media are either owned or controlled by the PA. The staff of the national television and radio stations are civil servants, paid, hired and fired by the Ministry of Information. Regular listeners say the radio is more professional than the television, but it doesn’t push its luck. WAFA, the official Palestinian news agency, home from its long exile, is more like Tass than Reuters. Al Ayam, a daily paper published in the West Bank town of Ramallah, is edited by Akram Hanieh, a veteran of Arafat’s Al Fatah movement and former personal adviser to the chairman before he came back from Tunis in 1994. Another Ramallah daily, Al Haya al Jadida, is edited by Nabil Amer, a political adviser to Arafat when he was in Beirut before 1982 and former PLO ambassador to Morocco.
Al Quds, which is published under Israeli rule and Arafat’s shadow in East Jerusalem, is subject to double censorship. Its owners, the Abu Zuluf family, have survived all changes for more than three decades. They don’t rock the boat. They do as the Palestinian Authority tells them. And they submit anything related to security to the Israeli military censors, as do smaller, fringe Arabic journals published in Jerusalem.
“The Israeli censorship,” says one veteran victim of the blue pencil, “deals with the material, not with the person. If they don’t like something, they cancel it, but they don’t arrest you. There can be very tough articles criticizing Netanyahu’s policies, and the censors don’t care. But they will cancel an article which encourages violence. At least we know what the rules are.”
It begins to sound like nostalgia.
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