Attacks on the Press 1999: Palestinian National Authority

Among many Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, the optimism that accompanied the establishment of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian National Authority (PNA) six years ago appears to have given way to disillusionment. Widespread corruption within the PNA, its perceived failure in negotiating a just peace, and worsening economic conditions for much of the population have contributed to public frustration. So, too, has Arafat’s autocratic style and disdain for criticism.

As in previous years, the PNA showed little tolerance for outspoken journalism. Throughout the year, authorities harassed local media by arbitrarily arresting and interrogating reporters and by closing private broadcast outlets. Wary of such reprisals, most journalists avoided sensitive topics such as high-level corruption and mismanagement within the PNA, human-rights abuses by security forces, and any negative coverage of Arafat. On the rare occasions when local Palestinian dailies cover such issues, they tend to provide scant detail, often relegating the stories to inside pages in order to minimize impact.

Of the three Palestinian daily newspapers, two maintain close financial or political links to the PNA: the daily Al-Ayyam is edited by Arafat aide Akram Haniya, and the daily Al-Hayat al-Jadida, whose staff’s salaries are paid by the PNA, was founded by Nabil Amr, another Arafat confidant and the PNA’s minister of parliamentary affairs. A third newspaper, the privately owned, Jerusalem-based Al-Quds, is ostensibly independent but also avoided meaningful criticism of the Arafat regime.

By contrast, the opposition Islamist weeklies Al-Risala and Al-Istiqlal–Gaza-based publications affiliated with the Khalas Party (made up of former Hamas members) and the Islamic Jihad group, respectively–were strident in their criticisms of the PNA’s human-rights abuses and financial improprieties. As a result, they continued to suffer disproportionately at the hands of authorities. Their offices were raided, and staff journalists were often arrested and interrogated by security forces.

Although the Islamist press was the main target of official harassment, certain mainstream reporters also received unwelcome attention from security officials. In one prominent case, security agents detained popular talk-show host Maher al-Dessouki for nearly three weeks. Although the PNA did not explain the detention, it was thought to have been triggered by a live interview in which the mother of an Arab prisoner in Israel denounced President Arafat.

In a show of defiance, al-Dessouki described the ordeal on his own program following his release. He told viewers that security agents repeatedly accused him of “insulting us” and applied the torture known as shabeh, in which the prisoner is blindfolded, tied to a chair, and beaten.

Al-Dessouki’s testimony highlighted some of the positive contributions being made by the burgeoning Palestinian broadcast media. The remarkable growth of private television and radio represents one of the few Palestinian media bright spots in recent years. An estimated 35 private television and radio stations operate within the West Bank and Gaza; today, the Palestinian territories and Lebanon are the only two Arab territories with meaningful private broadcast media.

But independent television and radio journalists have also suffered from official harassment. Like their print colleagues, they routinely practice self-censorship on sensitive topics pertaining to the PNA. In recent years, authorities have arbitrarily shut down stations or threatened them with closure in response to their programming.

In May, authorities shut down the Bethlehem-based Al-Roa’ TV for the second time in two years, this time for allegedly inciting communal strife in its broadcast of a play containing religious themes. In 1998, the station was closed for nearly five months after it aired coverage of pro-Iraqi demonstrations in the Palestinian territories during a period of tension between Iraq and United Nations weapons inspectors. In December 1999, Arafat ordered that the station be given permission to reopen.

April 26

Palestinian security authorities ordered the Hebron-based Amal TV to suspend broadcasting for allegedly jamming the frequency of the Palestinian National Authority’s official TV station.

According to journalists from Amal TV, however, Palestine TV officials were unaware of any such jamming. Staff at Amal TV suspect that the Palestinian Authority shut them down because of two controversial broadcasts–one about a Palestinian who had imprisoned his own son for several years in a cave in Hebron and another about the concept of corruption in Islam. The station was allowed to resume broadcasting in mid-May.

May 17

Palestinian security authorities suspended the Bethlehem-based Al-Roa’ TV in response to the station’s May 13 broadcast of a play entitled Natrin Faraj, which authorities claimed incited “prejudice” between Christians and Muslims.

According to staff at Al-Roa’ TV, officials from the Preventive Security Services (PSS) informed them of the closure on May 17. An official closure order, signed by PSS chief Jabril Rajoub, was handed to them on May 19.

This was only the most recent example of official harassment in response to Al-Roa’ TV’s independent news programming. On February 16, 1998, more than 100 police forced the station off the air after it broadcast coverage of pro-Iraqi demonstrations in the West Bank during a period of tension between Iraq and United Nations weapons inspectors. The station remained banned for nearly five months, until authorities allowed it to resume broadcasting in July 1998.

CPJ protested the closure order in separate letters to Palestinian president Yasser Arafat on May 24 and June 9, urging that it be reversed immediately. The station was reopened in December by order of President Arafat.

May 22
Ghazi Hamad, Al-Risala IMPRISONED
Wisam Afeefa, Al-Risala IMPRISONED
Saleh Bardaweel, Al-Risala IMPRISONED

Between May 22 and May 23, Palestinian security authorities arrested Hamad, managing editor of the Gaza-based Islamist weekly Al-Risala; Afeefa, the paper’s editor; and Bardaweel, the editor in chief.

The arrests came in response to an article in the paper’s May 20 edition, detailing the alleged torture of prisoner Ayman Amassi by Palestinian police. The article quoted Amassi’s family members, who said that Amassi–who had recently been transferred from Palestinian Authority custody to Gaza Hospital’s intensive-care unit–had been tortured by authorities despite official claims that he had tried to hang himself while in custody.

The three journalists were taken to the Criminal Investigation Department in Gaza for interrogation. Hamad was released on the evening of May 23. Afeefa and Bardaweel were freed one day later, on May 24. CPJ condemned the arrests in a May 24 letter to President Yasser Arafat.

July 3
Maher al-Alami, Al-Istiqlal HARASSED

Al-Alami, a free-lance journalist who writes frequently for Al-Istiqlal, a weekly newspaper that supports the Palestinian militant organization Islamic Jihad, was summoned to the Ramallah office of Mohammad Amin al-Jabari, director of the Palestinian police for the district of Jerusalem. The summons apparently came at the request of Palestinian police chief Ghazi al-Jabali.

Al-Alami was questioned about an article entitled “A Rosy Image” that appeared in the July 2 edition of Al-Istiqlal. Written in a heavily ironic style, the piece criticized the Palestinian Authority for corruption and human-rights violations, including harassment of Palestinian human-rights groups.

At the end of the two-hour interview, al-Jabari advised al-Alami not to write any more critical articles, adding that the journalist should feel fortunate to be dealing with such a lenient official. He also had al-Alami sign a statement affirming that his article had not been intended to harm anyone.

July 20
Maher al-Alami, Al-Istiqlal HARASSED

Al-Alami, a free-lance journalist who writes frequently for Al-Istiqlal, a weekly newspaper that supports the Palestinian militant organization Islamic Jihad, was summoned for questioning by Palestinian police in Ramallah in response to an article he wrote for the July 16 edition of Al-Istiqlal criticizing corruption in the Palestinian National Authority (PNA).

Entitled “The Snatch and Grab Club,” al-Alami’s article attacked the PNA for misusing public funds. Al-Alami was escorted to the police station by Col. Khaled Tantash, who warned the journalist against writing articles that might tarnish the image of the PNA.

At the police station, Colonel Tantash put al-Alami on the phone with Police Chief Ghazi al-Jabali, who accused him of being a foreign agent. Before his release, al-Alami was forced to sign a statement saying that he would henceforth refrain from “slandering” the PNA.

September 15
Maher al-Dessouki, Al-Quds Educational TV, Al-Nasser TV IMPRISONED

Plainclothes agents from the Palestinian Preventive Security Services, accompanied by uniformed soldiers, arrested al-Dessouki at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Al-Dessouki, a popular broadcast journalist with the independent stations Al-Quds Educational TV and Al-Nasser TV, was charged with “incitement” and “possessing material inciting against the Palestinian National Authority [PNA].”

PNA authorities did not elaborate on the charges, but it is believed that al-Dessouki was arrested because of a segment on his show “Space for Opinion” in which he conducted live interviews with the relatives of Israeli-held Palestinian prisoners. In one of the interviews, the mother of a prisoner denounced PNA president Yasser Arafat.

Al-Dessouki was held for 19 days and subjected to prolonged interrogation about the broadcast and other topics. His interrogators accused him of collaborating with Israel and insulting the PNA. During the initial three days of his detention, he was beaten and subjected to the punishment known as shabeh, in which detainees are forced to assume painful positions for lengthy periods of time (for example, being shackled to a chair while hooded or blindfolded).

In a September 17 letter to President Yasser Arafat, CPJ protested al-Dessouki’s arrest and urged his immediate release. The journalist was finally freed on October 4.

September 28
Munir Abu Rizq, Al-Hayat al-Jadeeda HARASSED
Saleh Naameh, Al-Sharq al-Awsat HARASSED
Fathi Sabah, Al-Ayyam HARASSED
Wael Abu Daqqah, Al-Jazeera TV HARASSED

Palestinian authorities arrested Abu Rizq, a reporter for the Palestinian daily AlHayat al-Jadeeda, and Naameh, a correspondent for the London-based daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat. The arrests followed an Al-Sharq al-Awsat report that Israel had handed over four high-ranking Palestinian National Authority (PNA) security officers to the PNA after they were found naked and drunk in a Tel Aviv strip club.

Palestinian police chief Ghazi al-Jabali said the two journalists had been “summoned” in the context of “investigations that the police are conducting to discover the source that circulated false news aimed at defaming the Palestinian Authority without its having any basis in fact.”

The next day, Sabah, a reporter for the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, and Abu Daqqah, a correspondent with the Qatar-based television station Al-Jazeera, were detained in connection with the same story. After questioning them, Palestinian police released all four journalists on September 29.