By: Tony Case
Palestinian journalists tour U.S. news operations for ideas
that could be implemented in their planned independent state sp.
NEWSPAPERS ARE ROUTINELY shut down. Journalists are jailed. Technology is substandard.
To say that building a free and pluralistic press isn’t a priority of Palestinian leaders is an understatement. But Palestinian journalists are hopeful that, as peace and freedom flourish, they’ll get more support.
The Palestinian Authority, busy working toward peace with Israel and planning an independent state, has put what are perceived as lesser domestic concerns on the back burner, explained Imad Musa of the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, an independent research organization.
“But many journalists believe it’s time right now to face our internal problems, to talk about a more liberal press right now,” he said. “Now is as good a time as ever to be more open in our press. This is the main conflict between journalists and the Authority.”
Musa and other Palestinian print and broadcast journalists sat for a group interview during a recent United Nations-sponsored visit to the United States.
During their six-week stay, they witnessed firsthand how the press in this country functions, touring news operations such as the New York Times and CNN and participating in university forums. Not surprisingly, conversations about journalistic ideals often turned into heated discussions about the historic Palestinian-Israeli conflict and American relations in the Middle East.
The Palestinian media, like the Palestinian people, face the bleakest of circumstances. Newspeople there are caught up in a struggle against censorship by both Palestinian and Israeli authorities, ancient and inadequate equipment and, of course, the region’s infamous, ongoing turbulence.
On top of all this, reporters are trying to figure out just what their role is, as their people lurch toward democracy.
Journalists and academics in this country “can’t understand why we can’t have an American-style press in the occupied territories,” said Saida Hamad with the news agency Quds Press. She defined American-style as “hostile toward the government” and “financially independent.”
Not only are news operations there strapped, but Palestinian journalists shoulder financial difficulties they’re Western colleagues couldn’t begin to comprehend. Many have to hold down second jobs to make ends meet. What’s more, this moonlighter status causes them to have a lower social standing.
“He’s a journalist for eight hours, but then he’s a taxi driver or a carpenter because he wants to live,” Musa said. “It was a little more respected profession at the beginning of the entifada. It was like a cause: He was getting the word out to the world about the suffering of the Palestinian people.”
But today, those who report the news get little respect ? not only from the public, but from their bosses. Musa described publishers as businessmen who care little about a free press and see journalists as easily replaceable.
And Palestinian journalists haven’t exactly found a champion in their leader, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat.
For about a month during the summer of 1994, the Palestinian Authority shut down the Jerusalem newspaper An-Na’ar for taking a pro-Jordanian stance. Later in the year, distribution of all Palestinian papers was stopped for one week after the daily Al-Quds reported that a rally organized by the radical Islamic group, Hamas, had attracted more participants than a PLO gathering.
Then, just a few weeks ago, Al-Quds was closed for one day after it ran a paid ad that criticized a festival sponsored by the Palestinian Minister of Culture.
And human-rights violations persist. Palestinian journalists are regularly imprisoned, charged with spreading lies about the Authority and jeopardizing state security. Many suffer physical abuse.
Hamad thinks for the Authority to attempt to control Palestinian news reports ? and reporters ? is fruitless.
“If something happens in Gaza or the West Bank and Palestinian reporters do not report on it, the same night you’ll see it on the nine o’clock news on Israeli TV and all Palestinians will see it,” she explained. “But they’ll see it in the Israeli view.”
Said Musa: “We would like to be able to be aggressive and hold people accountable, and [Arafat] is not open to that because he’s lived in the Arab world all his life and he’s styled his government according to what he’s seen and what he knows.”
Others insist Arafat isn’t an enemy of the press.
Hakim Salah of the Authority-run radio-training center in Gaza City said of Arafat: “All his life, he’s worked for his people. You don’t understand what’s the meaning of the nationality or the meaning of the country. You’re an American. You think like an American. That’s your wrong.”
Mohamed Adwan, Arafat’s press coordinator, feared it might upset the peace process if journalists were given too much freedom. “We say, you can write whatever you think, but there are always red lines you cannot overjump,” he said. “We are not in America, writing about Clinton.”
Adwan was shocked that the irreverent magazine Spy got away with running a comical, computer-manipulated cover shot of first lady Hillary Clinton wearing men’s briefs and sporting a male endowment.
“We will not allow this,” the press officer said. “Our ethics, our customs, our way of life are different completely. I may disagree with Hakim and then write this, but I cannot write that he is very short or he has glasses. This is not the way we deal with things.”
Aziz Altineh from the Palestine News Agency hopes, like many of his colleagues, that the media will be better received as relations with Israel improve. “Many things will come as a result of the peace,” he said.
Adwan agreed, predicting that after the Palestinian elections, “the situation will be much brighter. But now, there are many things that we have to face, both from within and from the other side ? the hunger, the Israeli embargo in the Gaza Strip. [The Authority] admits that there are problems. We admit there are mistakes toward the press.”
Meanwhile, mistreatment of the press goes on.
The Authority hasn’t apologized for recently confiscating Al-Quds’ printing plates, Musa pointed out. Nor have Palestinian leaders given any assurance that this sort of thing won’t happen again.
?(And Palestinian journalists haven’t exactly found a champion in their leader, Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat.) [Photo & Caption]