Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

More on the PA's Media Freedom deficit - Housebreaking the Watchdogs

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Following my previous blog post about the hypocrisy of media freedom under the Palestinian Authority (PA), new reports reveal that an independent Palestinian television station is facing legal charges over an investigation into corruption allegations at a Palestinian university, after claims that a son of a senior PA official was accepted into the university despite having failed to meet the academic requirements arose. The station in question is Wattan TV, a not-for-profit station founded in 1996 by civil society organisations. According to its mission statement, it "advocates democracy, peace, justice and political pluralism" and "promotes human rights and a transparent government accountable to the Palestinian people". Despite the station's claim that it has evidence to support the allegations, it was sued for one million dollars, and it is feared that its executives could face prison sentences. Imposing crippling legal sanctions on a television station for investigating corruption allegations seem like yet another blow to the 'democracy watchdog'.

Wattan TV General Director Muamar Orabi expressed concern over the growing media repression: "We are facing the worst time for independent journalists in the PA. Journalists are being arrested just for raising their voices and speaking freely. This is very, very dangerous. We need independent, credible voices."

In response to the incident, Ghassan Khatib, Director of the Palestinian government media centre, explained that closures and arrests were the responsibility of the Attorney-General, and added that "The government believes in freedom of opinion and expression." This freedom, apparently, is not extended to journalists and bloggers who use social networks, or TV stations that investigate corruption.

It also apparently does not apply to journalists who dare talk to their Israeli colleagues. The Palestinian Journalist Syndicate in the West Bank threatened to fire and expel from its ranks any Palestinian journalist who meets with Israeli colleagues. What brought about this severing of ties? An event bringing together Israeli and Palestinian journalists held on World Free Press Day, and similar meetings between Israeli and Palestinian journalists in Europe in recent months. A senior member of the Fatah-dominated syndicate stated that such meetings are rejected because they amount to "normalization" with Israel. It is of course impossible to imagine that Palestinian journalists can do their job of reporting on Israel if any contact with Israelis is forbidden.

The syndicate also boycotted a ceremony held by the US consulate on World Free Press Day due to what they said was US bias in favour of Israel. To intimidate its members even further, the syndicate also threatened to expose the identity of any journalists who accepted the invitation. Threatening to penalise journalists for participating in World Free Press Day events requires a certain bizarre absence of any sense of irony.

Limiting free speech by taking measures against journalists is only one mechanism implemented to silence criticism. Manipulation is another far more sophisticated one, as described by Khaled Abu-Toameh. He argues that the PA is trying to portray itself as the restorer of law and order to the West Bank, and especially the city of Jenin:

Journalists from all around the world were invited to Jenin, once notorious for dispatching suicide bombers to Israel, to report on the Palestinian government's successful efforts. Palestinian leaders and government officials told the journalists how their security forces have managed to end the state of chaos and lawlessness that used to prevail in Jenin. They talked about how Fatah gangsters and thugs who used to roam the streets, imposing an atmosphere of intimidation and terror on the population, have vanished. Most of the gangsters, the Palestinian government officials noted, had been recruited to various branches of the Western-funded Palestinian security forces and were indirectly receiving salaries from American and European taxpayers' money. Many Western correspondents rushed to Jenin to cover the story about the success of the Palestinian Authority in restoring law and order.

Toameh claims that the story sold to journalists by the PA does not represent the reality in Jenin:

But while the international, and Israeli, media were breaking the "good news" about Jenin, the journalists failed to understand what was really going on in Jenin and its surrounding villages. Some journalists, in fact, chose to turn a blind eye to the grim reality on the ground.

He also added that a journalist who wanted to investigate the dark aspects of reality in Jenin, such as the murder of Israeli Arab actor and film producer Julian Mar- Khamis last year "was warned by senior Palestinian security officers that she would be putting her life at risk if she insisted on carrying out this mission."

These attempts to cover up the truth about Jenin, Toameh argues, failed as the assassination attempt of Jenin's local governor unveiled the reality the PA tried to hide:

Radi Asideh, the security commander of the Jenin area, admitted that it was the Palestinian security establishment that was responsible for the anarchy and lawlessness. 'There is a defect inside the security establishment and officers were responsible for this,' he revealed.
The biggest mistake, Asideh added, was that the Palestinian leadership had turned its back to the defect, allowing the situation to deteriorate at the expense of the people's security.

Toameh adds that many Palestinians in the West Bank also share the perception that lawlessness can still be found in areas under PA control, and often blame the PA security forces for the corruption and chaos. Unfortunately, such voices are rarely heard and Palestinian journalists, even when aware of the reality on the ground, are prevented from reporting it.

Or Avi-Guy