Obama should press Israel to return Wattan TV property

New York, March 19, 2013–During his trip to the region this week, U.S. President Barack Obama should call on Israeli authorities to return the equipment of an independent broadcaster that was seized more than a year ago, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Israeli authorities raided the Ramallah-based private broadcaster Wattan TV in February 2012 and confiscated key equipment, including transmitters, computers, files, and archives. Officials said at the time that Wattan TV was broadcasting illegally and had interfered with aircraft transmissions. Muammar Orabi, the station’s general director, told CPJ that the broadcaster had a license granted by the Palestinian Authority, which could not have been issued without Israeli acquiescence.

The station, founded in 1996, has gained credibility through its probing, independent coverage of both Palestinian and Israeli authorities. The outlet’s equipment was funded in large part by U.S. agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Middle East Partnership Initiative.

In July, Lawrence Silverman, the State Department’s director for the office of Israel and Palestinian affairs, wrote a letter to CPJ, pledging that the U.S. government would “continue to assist in securing the release of the Wattan TV equipment.”

Orabi told CPJ today that Israeli authorities had only returned some, “inoperable” computers and a few financial records that had clearly been tampered with. The station said it is still unaware of why the offices were raided and its equipment confiscated. Israeli authorities have pursued no enforcement actions against the station.

“Wattan TV has been without important equipment and records for more than a year without any evident justification,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa coordinator. “President Obama should take this opportunity to urge the return of Wattan TV’s property, a step that would support the peace process through the further cultivation of an independent press.”

CPJ has raised the plight of Wattan TV in several letters to U.S. and Israeli officials. On May 8, CPJ issued a protest letter to Moshe Kachlon, the Israeli Minister of Communications, urging the ministry to return the outlet’s confiscated equipment. After receiving no response, CPJ sent a letter on July 5 to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging the State Department to pressure the Israeli government to return the U.S.-funded equipment. Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., and Daniel Shapiro, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, also received copies of the letter.

In addition to the confiscated equipment, authorities have also detained without charge Palestinian cartoonist Mohammad Saba’aneh since February 16. Saba’aneh, who has been granted only intermittent access to a lawyer, recently published political cartoons depicting the plight of Palestinian journalists in Israeli prisons. Saba’aneh visited the United States in 2010 as a member of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program.