Attacks on the Press 2000: Palestinian National Authority

WITH A PALESTINIAN UPRISING RAGING IN THE ISRAELI-OCCUPIED TERRITORIES, the Oslo peace process dead, and his popularity slipping, the future of Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian National Authority (PNA) seemed precarious. But Arafat’s leadership position appeared unchallenged for the time being, with the result that press freedom remained under threat. The year was marked by a familiar pattern of abuses against outspoken journalists and news outlets by PNA security forces.

Between May and June, authorities launched a broad clampdown on private radio and television stations in the West Bank, temporarily shutting down five stations without explanation and detaining a number of journalists. In a case emblematic of the PNA’s approach to its local critics, security forces detained free-lance journalist Maher al-Alami in Ramallah for 12 days of questioning about articles he had published in an opposition newspaper. Al-Alami, a long-time PNA target, was held without charge and then abruptly released after being forced to sign a statement saying that he would not “harm” PNA officials in the future.

The arrest of al-Alami and the censorship against radio and television stations illustrated the often-capricious behavior of Arafat’s security forces. “There is no legal reference,” said one Palestinian editor. “Someone at the top can say this one should be arrested or closed and they will close it.” More often, however, authorities used more subtle techniques to rein in critics. Security officials invited several journalists for informal chats over a cup of coffee, and then subjected them to verbal abuse, threats, and questions about their published work.

Such heavy-handed treatment fostered self-censorship throughout the Palestinian media. All the major dailies enjoy cozy relations with the PNA, and the mainstream press routinely avoids coverage of sensitive issues such as PNA corruption and mismanagement, human-rights abuses by security forces, or any reporting that might cast Arafat in a negative light.

During the violence that consumed the territories beginning in late September, there were instances where the PNA harassed Palestinian media outlets. On November 15, for example, security forces raided the private Bethlehem television station Al-Roa’ and temporarily forced it off the air. Security agents beat up station director Hamdi Farraj and several other staff members, threatening to shoot them and destroy the station’s equipment. The attack was apparently prompted by the station’s erroneous report that Israeli forces had bombed a Palestinian military post in Bethlehem.

The station resumed broadcasting shortly after the raid, only to be shut down again two days later. The second shutdown, however, was reversed when some 100 local residents marched to the station’s offices, in a remarkable show of defiance, and demanded that it reopen. Al-Roa’ then resumed broadcasting in defiance of the PNA ban. Authorities apparently decided not to press the point.

In recent years, private broadcast outlets such as Al-Roa’ TV have proliferated in the Palestinian territories. Despite a general lack of funding and professional training, journalists at these stations led local coverage of Israeli-Palestinian violence, providing up-to-date news, hosting forums for discussion, and supplying public service information for the hard-pressed Palestinian population. “There were attempts by the PNA to restrict the local television stations, but they failed and the PNA is unable to contain them as before,” noted a Palestinian columnist.

Stone-throwing Palestinian demonstrators injured several local journalists during the fall clashes. Meanwhile, a few Western journalists reported physical attacks and hostility directed against them by demonstrators. During the highly publicized October mob killing of two Israeli reservists in Ramallah, several journalists were beaten by demonstrators, had their cameras confiscated, or were otherwise prevented from covering the incident. (See also “Israel and the Occupied Territories”)

Khaled Amayreh, Akhbar al-Khalil

Palestinian General Intelligence (GI) agents questioned Amayreh, editor of the Hebron weekly Akhbar al-Khalil, for several hours about his writings, particularly an editorial on the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The officers accused Amayreh of inciting refugees against the Palestinian leadership. One threatened to “burn down” Amayreh’s newspaper if he continued to criticize the Palestinian National Authority.

On February 16, Amayreh was again summoned by GI agents, this time for questioning about a separate interrogation that he had received from an Israeli officer. The Palestinian officers again threatened to close down the paper.

Nawras TV

Palestinian police ordered the indefinite closure of Nawras TV in Hebron. No official explanation was given for the closure, but it followed the broadcast of a news item about a strike by Palestinian teachers.

The station was allowed to resume broadcasting on March 3, after appeals to Palestinian National Authority officials and members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Khaled Amayreh, Akhbar al-Khalil

Palestinian General Intelligence (GI) officers subjected Amayreh, editor of the Hebron weekly Akhbar al-Khalil, to three hours of hostile questioning. The editor said that the seven or eight officers who interrogated him were angry that he had published an account of his previous interrogation at the hands of GI officers in February (see February 11 case).

Amayreh said the officers cursed him during the interrogation, using vulgar language.

Nasser Shiyoukhi, The Associated Press

Associated Press photographer Shiyoukhi had his film confiscated by Palestinian police after he photographed a demonstration that followed Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Dheishe refugee camp near Bethlehem.

Some six police officers demanded that Shiyoukhi hand over his film, saying he should not show the world such “uncivilized” behavior. According to Shiyoukhi, several other photographers had their film confiscated by Palestinian police that day.

Imad al-Franji, Al-Quds

After publishing a report that criticized the Palestinian National Authority’s State Security Court, al-Franji, a Gaza correspondent for the Palestinian daily Al-Quds, received a request to appear before prosecutor Fayez Hamad.

The journalist refused this request as well as subsequent ones, but did meet with Hamad and Attorney General Khaled al-Khidra several days later. Hamad questioned him about the article, which was based on a report issued by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza.

Al-Franji was then taken to another room, where al-Khidra warned him to “be careful” about what he wrote.

Maher al-Dessouki, Al-Quds Educational TV, Al-Nasser TV

Shortly after presenting a program on opposition groups and democracy within the Palestinian National Authority, talk-show host al-Dessouki was followed home by a group of unidentified men.

Al-Dessouki, whose program “Space for Opinion” appears on the private stations Al-Quds Educational TV and Al-Nasser TV, noticed four men in a car with no license plates parked near his own vehicle as he was leaving Al-Quds TV’s Al-Bireh studio.

The unmarked car followed him, zigzagging behind him and then swerving toward him as he approached his house, nearly causing an accident. The next day, Al-Dessouki reported the incident to Palestinian security authorities, who told him to “be careful.”

Voice of Love and Peace

Palestinian police from the Criminal Investigation Unit in Ramallah ordered Mu’taz Bseiso, director of the private radio station Voice of Love and Peace, to cease broadcasting immediately. The closure followed the broadcast of an interview with Omar Assaf, a representative of Palestinian teachers who were then on strike. Assaf himself was arrested after giving the interview.

The radio station was allowed to resume broadcasting five days later, after appealing to PNA chairman Yasser Arafat’s office, Bseiso said.

MAY 15
Najuib Abu Jubein, The Associated Press

Associated Press cameraman Abu Jubein was hit in the head by a rock thrown by a Palestinian demonstrator while he was covering clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli army near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim in the Gaza Strip.

The journalist was taken to a nearby clinic, where he received five stitches in his head.

Maher Abu Khater. Deutsche Presse-Agentur, Los Angeles Times

Abu Khater, a veteran free-lance journalist working with the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) and the Los Angeles Times, was hit in the chest and seriously wounded by a live round fired by Palestinian police while covering armed clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in the West bank city of Ramallah.

Abu Khater had been standing with a group of journalists near Israeli soldiers when he was hit. The bullet penetrated the left side of his chest. Israeli army medics treated the journalist at the scene and then transferred him to Hadassah Hospital.

MAY 21
Al-Watan TV
Omar Nazal,Al-Watan TV

Palestinian police from the Criminal Investigation Unit in Ramallah ordered Nazal, director of the private television station Al-Watan, to cease broadcasting immediately. They gave no reason for the order, although it might have stemmed from coverage of a hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

On May 23, the Palestinian Ministry of Information notified Nazal that Al-Watan could resume broadcasting. But when station employees attempted to return to work, armed police officers raided the station and evacuated the premises. Nazal was detained for an hour and accused of disregarding the police’s closure order. When Nazal explained that the Ministry of Information had given him permission to broadcast, the police said that they did not recognize the ministry’s authority.

The station was eventually allowed to resume broadcasting on May 24. According to Nazal, this was the fifth time Al-Watan had been closed since it began broadcasting in 1996.

MAY 27
Maher al-Dessouki, Al-Quds Educational TV, Al-Nasser TV

Shortly after al-Dessouki featured a discussion of press freedom on “Space for Opinion,” a talk show on the private television stations Al-Quds Educational TV and Al-Nasser TV, Palestinian police summoned him for questioning in Ramallah.

At about 10:30 p.m., the journalist drove to police headquarters accompanied by one of his talk-show guests, an influential member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

“There was a colonel who met me,” al-Dessouki told CPJ. “He had files and information about what I said on this date and that date.”

After talking with the colonel and other officers for about three hours, al-Dessouki was allowed to leave.

MAY 30
Al-Nasser TV
Al-Menara Radio

Palestinian police ordered the closure of the Ramallah television station Al-Nasser TV and its sister radio station, Al-Menara. Officers from the Criminal Investigation Unit visited both offices, which are housed in the same building, and announced that the two stations were being closed. All employees were told to evacuate the premises immediately.

No reason was given for the closure order, but staff members suggested that it might have stemmed from Al-Nasser TV’s airing of a call-in talk show during which members of the Palestinian Legislative Council criticized the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). One legislator said on the air that new Palestinian leadership might be necessary if progress was not made on the issue of Palestinian statehood by September.

On May 31, PNA authorities informed Ammar Ammar, director of both stations, that Al-Menara could resume broadcasting but that the ban on Al-Nasser TV remained in effect. Al-Nasser was allowed to reopen in late June.

Al-Mahid TV
Samir Qomsiyya, Al-Mahid TV

Palestinian police ordered the closure of Al-Mahid TV in Bethlehem and arrested Qomsiyya, the station’s owner. Al-Mahid’s office was locked by police and employees were prohibited from entering.

Staff at the station said the closure might have come in response to a statement that Qomsiyya had recently issued in his capacity as head of the unofficial Union of Private Radio and Television Broadcasters in Palestine. The statement protested the Palestinian National Authority’s clampdown on television and radio stations in the West Bank.

Qomsiyya was released two days later, and Al-Mahid TV was allowed to resume broadcasting in mid-June.

Maher al-Alami, free-lancer

Palestinian security agents detained al-Alami, a free-lance journalist who writes frequently for the Islamist weekly Al-Istiqlal, after summoning him by telephone the previous evening. When the journalist arrived at the offices of the General Intelligence (GI) service, he was taken to Palestinian police headquarters in downtown Ramallah, and then to Ramallah Central Prison, where he was jailed without charge. According to al-Alami, an officer told him that he was being held by order of Palestinian National Authority (PNA) chairman Yasser Arafat.

The journalist was held for 12 days and subjected to two lengthy interrogations. During one session, a police officer asked why al-Alami had supported a Palestinian teachers’ strike in an Al-Istiqlal article. They also questioned him about another article in which he argued that Arafat’s decision to move certain Islamic law courts outside the city limits of Jerusalem would weaken the Palestinian presence in the disputed city. Finally, an officer cited al-Alami’s appearance on a local television program two days earlier, when he denounced the PNA closure of several private television and radio stations in the West Bank.

During al-Alami’s detention, one of the interrogators forced al-Alami to sign a written statement pledging that in the future he would not “harm” any members of the PNA.

CPJ protested al-Alami’s detention in a June 13 letter to Palestinian police chief Ghazi Jebali. On June 18, al-Alami was released without charge.

Muhammad Najuib, free-lancer

Najuib, a free-lance journalist who heads the local press freedom organization Free Voice, was summoned for questioning by Palestinian General Intelligence (GI) agents in Ramallah.

After arriving at GI headquarters, Najuib was made to wait for several hours and was then placed in a room with other detainees. No reason was provided for the summons. He was later questioned by agents, who asked vague questions about his work. Najuib said the motivation for the detention was unclear. He was released the following day.

Walid Suleiman Amayreh, Akhbar al-Khalil

Amayreh, publisher of the biweekly Akhbar al-Khalil, was detained by Palestinian police after his live appearance on the Gulf-based satellite news station Al-Shareqah. During the program, Amayreh criticized the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) for rampant corruption and for pursuing a peace settlement with Israel. He also called for the release of imprisoned Hamas activists.

The journalist was questioned and forced to sign a pledge affirming that he would abide by Palestinian information laws. He was released after 30 hours in custody.

Several cameramen and photojournalists

A Palestinian mob prevented several cameramen and photographers from filming the killing of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah. Some journalists were assaulted and had their film or cameras confiscated.

A cameraman from ABC News was kicked in the groin and stomach by the crowd and prevented from filming the event.

British free-lance photographer Mark Seager was also assaulted and had his camera seized. “Instinctively, I reached for my camera,” Seager later wrote in the London Sunday Telegraph. “I was composing the picture when I was punched in the face by a Palestinian. Another Palestinian pointed right at me shouting ‘no picture, no picture!’ while another guy hit me in the face and said ‘give me your film!’ I tried to get the film out but they were all grabbing me and one guy just pulled the camera off me and smashed it to the floor.”

Patrick Baz, a photographer for Agence France-Presse, had two of his cameras confiscated by the crowd, though he had not taken any photographs of the killing. “I bumped into a crowd. They wanted my film,” he told CPJ, saying the mob apparently suspected him of belonging to an undercover Israeli unit. “I hadn’t taken any shots. I had nothing to give them. I was pushed and harassed. They started pulling at my camera.” He said he ended up getting one of the cameras back after pleading with the crowd, but the other was destroyed.

One journalist working for a Western news organization who was at the scene said the angry crowd prevented several other cameramen and photographers from filming the incident.

Aziz al-Tineh, WAFA

On or about October 18, al-Tineh, a reporter with the official Palestinian National Authority (PNA) news agency WAFA, was seriously wounded in an explosion at a PNA security post in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. The source of the explosion was unclear, but CPJ sources said it was an accidental blast and not the result of a hostile act such as shelling.

On October 28, al-Tineh died from his injuries at a hospital in Amman, Jordan.

Some journalists reported that al-Tineh was on assignment when he was wounded. A number of CPJ sources, however, said the journalist had been paying a social visit to his brother, who apparently worked at the security post, when the explosion occurred.

Al-Roa’ TV
Hamdi Farraj, Al-Roa’ TV
Several journalists

Palestinian National Authority (PNA) security forces raided the private Bethlehem television station Al-Roa’ and temporarily forced it off the air. During the raid, two PNA soldiers beat station director Hamdi Farraj and several other staff members, the journalists said, while other soldiers threatened to shoot the staff and destroy the station’s equipment. After forcing the staff outside, the soldiers locked the station’s doors and confiscated the keys.

Though the authorities did not give a reason for the raid, it was apparently prompted by Al-Roa’s incorrect report that Israeli forces had bombed a Palestinian military facility in Bethlehem.

The melee continued outside until other PNA security agents arrived on the scene and intervened to stop the beatings. Farraj and several staff members were briefly detained. The station was allowed to resume broadcasting shortly thereafter.

Two days later, at 8:30 p.m. on the evening of November 17, Palestinian police ordered the station to cease broadcasting. The police carried a letter to PNA chairman Yasser Arafat, asking Arafat to order the closure of Al-Roa’ and the arrest of Farraj, whom the letter accused of promoting sectarian strife. (Farraj was not arrested).

The letter was signed by PNA police chief Ghazi Jebali, by the head of Arafat’s Bethlehem office, William Nasser, and by other police and security officials. The officers also carried a written reply from Arafat that said “Do what you think is necessary,” Al-Roa’ reported.

Station staff told CPJ that the authorities had accused the station of promoting religious “strife” within the Palestinian community, but did not elaborate.

On November 19, about 100 local residents marched to the station’s offices and demanded that it reopen. Al-Roa’ then went back on the air, in defiance of the closure order, and was still broadcasting at press time.