Palestinian TV wants US help retrieving seized transmitter

Wattan TV bills itself as the voice of the voiceless. But since the Israeli army gutted its Ramallah headquarters in a predawn raid two months ago, that voice has been reduced to a whisper.

Palestinian Authority
blocks websites

The station’s general director, Muamar Orabi, went to Washington this month to urge the U.S. government to press Israel to return Wattan’s confiscated equipment. The equipment was funded in large part by U.S. agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Middle East Partnership Initiative, a fund controlled by the State Department.

Wattan, the only independent television station that until February broadcast throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, faces financial ruin if it does not get its equipment back, Orabi told CPJ in New York. The station depends on advertising for about half of its revenue.

The loss of Wattan would tear a gaping hole in the already flimsy press freedom fabric of the Palestinian territories. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza each have their own affiliated television channel, which serves up suitably bland news fare. Wattan, by contrast, has angered the Palestinian power and money elites as well as Israel with its probing coverage since being founded by three civil society groups in 1996.

“The equipment confiscated by the Israel army was paid by your tax payers, the equipment (is) labeled as a gift from the American people,” Orabi said. “So I am coming here to advocate and to raise awareness in State and USAID to put pressure on the Israelis to give back our equipment.”

Officials from Israel’s communications ministry backed by soldiers raided Wattan on February 29 without showing a warrant or giving an explanation, Orabi said. Israeli sources said the station was broadcasting illegally and interfering with legal civilian and security-related broadcast frequencies. Orabi rejects that, saying that since its inception Wattan has had a broadcast license issued by the Palestinian Authority — which could not have been allocated without Israeli agreement. It has paid more than $600,000 in license renewal fees, and in 2004 Orabi registered its broadcast frequency with the International Telecommunication Union, the U.N. agency for information and communication technologies in Geneva.

If the Israelis were concerned just with interference, Orabi argues, why did they confiscate all the station’s computers, personal laptops, its entire news archive and footage, servers, and business, financial and personnel records, in addition to its transmission equipment? Wattan lost everything in an Israeli raid in 2002, including its 1996-2002 archive. Now it has lost its last 10 years of output.

Israel Defense Forces spokesman Eytan Buchman told CPJ that confiscation of the equipment followed requests for the station to stop broadcasting on illegal frequencies. He said soldiers had only provided “perimeter security” for the raid and referred further questions to the Ministry of Communications. Ministry spokesman Yechiel Shavi declined to give details when reached by phone, citing this week’s public holidays in Israel.

After the raid, some of Wattan’s total 50 staff and several supporters brought in their own laptops and within two days the station, which also runs a website, was back on air but with a vastly reduced range.

“We still cannot broadcast any live programs…we are working in a very primitive way,” Orabi laments.

He said U.S. officials listened politely to his pleas for help, but he is disappointed by the lack of action on the ground.

“They said. ‘Oh, we are working; we are contacting the Israeli side.’ A very diplomatic answer but unfortunately, to be honest, I am not satisfied at all about the reaction that must be taken about what happened … Our equipment was stolen,” Orabi said.

The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to CPJ’s requests for comment.

I asked Orabi why he believes the station was raided now.

“This is a question for the Israelis. Wattan is not affiliated to any political party, it’s independent. As a TV we’re not anti-Israel or anti-Jewish… Sometimes our news is about violations of human rights from the Israeli side and sometimes from the Palestinian side,” he said.

In fact, Wattan has been a thorn in the flesh of the PA for most of its existence and has been shut down five times by the Palestinian government because of its reporting. It has been singled out for criticism recently by PA officials over its coverage of protests against a proposed Value Added Tax hike. It also faces a $1 million defamation suit from An-Najah National University in Nablus over a story alleging that a relative of a political official was admitted despite not having the required grades.

The question mark over the station’s future comes at a critical time for independent journalism in the Palestinian territories. The governments in both Ramallah and Gaza City appear to be increasingly intolerant of reporters investigating corruption and mismanagement, journalists say. Just this week journalists reported that authorities have started blocking access to critical news websites.

Orabi is determined to keep Wattan on air and independent of government. He declined an offer from the Palestinian Authority to replace the estimated $300,000 worth of confiscated equipment, and has hired an Israeli lawyer to fight for the return the station’s property through the Israeli courts.

“We are commercial and losing revenue for two months…next month we will enter a big financial crisis,” Orabi said. “What has happened is a disaster.”