The inter-Palestinian war of words and the mutual violations of the freedom of press and expression by the Hamas – led government of Ismael Haniyyeh in the Gaza Strip and the Fatah – led government of Salam Fayyad in the West Bank have presented Israel with its biggest propaganda prize that is overshadowing the violations of human rights committed by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).
The Palestinian Center for Press Development and Freedom “Mada” had this to say on Palestinian media during August this year: There were “more violations of media freedom in the Palestinian territories particularly by the Executive Force (of Hamas) in the Gaza Strip and the (Fatah-led) Palestinian security agencies (of the Palestinian Authority) in the West Bank, in addition to the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF). Nothing changed in the status of the media that was closed by both sides, or prevented from distribution, whether in the West Bank or in Gaza Strip.”
On July 14 “Mada” described the violations of press freedom during the preceding month of June as a “massacre of Palestinian media” committed by Palestinians themselves, including Palestinian armed groups; media institutions were attacked, burned, ransacked and destroyed, printing and distributing of newspapers were banned, and journalists were arrested, threatened and shot at. The violations led to a “serious compromise of press freedom;” Palestinian journalists had become too scared to cover the events and disseminate information, which “reinforced self-censorship by journalists and independent media.” Objective reporting was absent and “few local media maintained impartiality.”
On September 10, the plight of Palestinian media caught international attention when The New York Times reported that Fatah in the West Bank has closed Hamas-affiliated media outlets and prevented Hamas-supported newspapers from circulating or Hamas television from broadcasting; equipment has been confiscated or destroyed, six Hamas journalists have been arrested and 12 more beaten. In Gaza Hamas has done the same to Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA)-controlled media. At least eight outlets were closed, including three newspapers.
The next day a group of intellectuals in Gaza demanded in a statement that the Palestinian media not be crushed between “the hammer of Ramallah and the anvil of Gaza.” Some journalists, like Saifuddin Shaeen, correspondent of Al-Arabia satellite TV station and Majdi Al-Arabeed, the director and owner of the “Voice of Liberty” fled Gaza while Mohammad Shteiwi, the director of al-Aqsa satellite TV station in the West Bank, went into hiding. 700 employees of the Palestine Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) are now staying home because they could not do their work. Independent journalists and media outlets have resorted to self-censoring, a practice they mastered long before Hamas came into power.
The Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights called on the PA and “the political powers in the OPT to take all the necessary measures to guarantee that journalists are kept outside the political struggle.” The Foreign Press Association, which represents the foreign media in Israel and the Palestinian territories, condemned “this kind of dangerous infringement of professional journalists.” On August 28 the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers (WAN) — which represents 18,000 newspapers with a membership including 76 national newspaper associations, newspaper companies and individual newspaper executives in 102 countries, 12 news agencies and 10 regional and world-wide press groups — condemned the increasing harassment of journalists and the deterioration of working conditions for Palestinian journalists in the OPT.
Fayyad’s government found itself obliged recently to apologize to Reuters for violations during a suppressed Hamas-led protest by university students in the southern West Bank city of Hebron. Hanniyeh’s government had to admit and apologize publicly for similar violations in the Gaza Strip. One could review their mutual records on the violations of the other side as well as the reports they selectively quote from international organizations of human rights to condemn each other to have an overall idea of their serious disregard of the recognized standards of free press and expression.
Defunct Press Law Activated
Hamas, trying to contain the drive towards partisan propaganda away from professional journalism, dug out of the PA archives what was in practice a defunct Palestinian press law designed to silence dissident journalists, ban the publication of information likely to “endanger national unity, incite crimes or hatred, division and religious dissent” and publication of “secret information” about the police and security forces. This law was practically not in force because the public official media network as well as the private sector media were overwhelmingly controlled or owned by the ruling Fatah movement; their self-censorship made up for enforcing the law.
Fatah’s 40-year old monopoly of power first within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) then later within the PA, which was created as a limited self-rule authority after the Oslo Palestinian – Israeli peace accords of 1993, has led to monopoly of media. In 1999, Article 19, a human rights organization to defend and promote freedom of expression and information worldwide, criticized in a memorandum to the PA the Palestinian Press Law for including articles that contradict with the international standards of Press freedom and freedom of free flow of information.
The law institutes a number of restrictions on the content of what may be published, many of which are unacceptable broad and/or vague. For example, publications must not “contradict the principles of … national responsibility” or publish material that is “inconsistent with morals” or which may “shake belief in the national currency.” (Ironically Palestinians have yet to have a national currency). These restrictions are backed up with censorship powers as publications must deposit copies with the government prior to distribution. The law also provides for harsh sanctions for breach of its provisions, in many cases extending to jail terms.
However, “We are all bound by this 1995 press law, and its articles carry the force of the law,” said a statement from Hamas’ “information ministry” in Gaza. Referring to a newly-created governmental committee to oversee media, the statement said this committee had the right to conduct raids against media premises and bureaux and “to summon their members over issues relating to their work. We will not deal with organizations which do not have authorization or do not respect the rules.” Hamas spokesman, Tahar al-Nunu, who heads the committee said: “We cannot change this law, it is the only one we have.”
Moreover, Hamas for the first time ever cracked down on Internet Web sites. The Open Net Initiative (ONI) has studied the status of Internet censorship in 40 countries including the OPT. ONI’s researchers found no filtering at all in Russia, Israel or the Palestinian territories despite political conflicts there (2007). This finding tells that the cyber freedom is aught to be absolute in the West Bank and Gaza contrary to all Arab countries without exception. This has now to change.
Internet plays a vital role as a means of communication between the more than 3.5 million Palestinians under the Israeli military occupation since 1967 and the outside world; it also serves as a vital means of communication among the Palestinians themselves, whether between those besieged in the Gaza Strip and their compatriots in the West Bank as there is no territorial linkage between the two areas, or between both areas and the Palestinian Diaspora, or among the cantons of Palestinian population in the West Bank, where more than 550 Israeli military roadblocks and a longer than 700km Apartheid Wall (called a security fence or barrier by the IOF) isolate the urban centers from each other as well as from the countryside villages and towns which they serve.
However the journalists are not helping to ease their work. More than 14 years of Fatah’s monopoly of power have created a Fatah-led media network with Fatah-affiliated journalists who in the current crisis could not resist taking sides; neither could the new emerging Hamas-led media journalists. Both are giving each of the two rival governments reason to harass them on security grounds. Journalists in their majority on both sides are compromising their professionalism with biased reporting, giving priority to political loyalty.
The “language of force” has overtaken the media’s supposed language of truth and propaganda has replaced professional journalism in the mainstream coverage of events. Professional standards, rule of laws governing journalism, the civil right “to know,” media outlets and journalists themselves have fallen victim to the rule of force. No wonder, when media becomes the major battle ground as well as the main tool of the infighting where none is sacred anymore, even the Muslim Friday prayers.
The still escalating war of words comprises mutual accusations of “collaboration” with or “serving” the Israeli occupying power, staging “coup d’etat,” “fascism,” “treachery and treason” killings, “assassination in cold blood,” committing “organized crimes” and “war crimes” by “mercenaries” and “outlaws,” mutual calls for “national” trials, etc. Readers may check out statements by the chief of the PA intelligence Tawfiq al-Tirawi and the speaker of the Hamas parliamentary group Saeed Siyam on September 17 for samples of the language used in this inter-Palestinian media war.
It is a killer language. The mutual smearing of images is almost tantamount to a political assassination of the foes that could justify later their physical liquidation. What can the Israeli “enemy” say more about both of them? Now Israel could quote both sides to justify her extra-judicial liquidation of their leaders and anti-occupation activists.
Both sides of the internal conflict are using religion to serve their war of words. In order to politically outmaneuver Hamas, which dominates the mosques, the secular Fatah and her “leftist” and liberal PLO coalition partners ironically called for Friday prayers in public spaces, creating a religious controversy over whether this conforms to Islamic law or not, with their secular spokesmen turning into experts in religious law and quoting religious text to support their politically-motivated call.
The high tension led for example a veteran media expert like Yasser Abed Rabbo, Secretary General of the PLO Executive Committee who was once responsible for PLO’s media and former cabinet minister of information and culture, to loose temper with a BBC interviewer, Mahmoud Murad, last month when he asked whom exactly the PA consider as their enemy, Israel or Hamas. Abed Rabbo hit back live on the air with, “you are impolite, rude …” Murad threatened to sue.
When Confucius was asked: “What is the first thing you would do if elected as the country’s leader?” he answered: “To correct the use of language, of course. We have to use words right. If not, speech will not be in order, and if speech is not in order, then nothing can be accomplished. If nothing is accomplished, morals and art decline. If morals and art decline, justice has no direction. If justice has no direction, people will stay confused and helpless. So you have to be very careful what you say.” (Quoted by Sirikit Syah in the Brunei Times on Sept. 10, 2007)
Two codes of honor to protect the Palestinian freedom of press have become indispensable to neutralize the besieged media in the raging war of words, one between the rival governments in Gaza and Ramallah, led by Hamas and Fatah respectively, and another code among journalists themselves to adopt professional standards in their coverage irrespective of political affiliation and sympathies.
Intervention by international and local human rights organizations is also indispensable to bring both the authorities and the media community to respect impartial, neutral and independent reporting because the heat of the conflict in the OPT is unlikely to convince either side of the crisis to voluntarily abstain from harassing both the few remaining independent media outlets and the media channels of the rival political foe.
‘Official’ War of Words
Media has become the most important vehicle for the PA in confronting Hamas, PA Information Minister Riyad al-Malki told a group of Israeli and Palestinian journalists in Ramallah on August 14 that “80 percent of the battle is focused on media information.” Ironically al-Malki suggested that Israelis could think of ways to help the PA Information Ministry achieve its goals. “At the end of the day, this government wants to reach peace with Israel,” he said.
Prior to the meeting with al-Malki, Basem Abu Sumaya, chairman of the PBC, which was bombed by the Israelis in 2002, led the journalists in a tour of his premises. During the meeting nothing was said about an Israeli ban on deliveries of paper to Gaza, where print press could hardly manage with the shortage of paper, power and fuel due to Israel’s tight siege. Moreover and even days before Hamas’ control of Gaza, Israel prevented the three West Bank dailies from entering Gaza until June 29.
The inter-Palestinian war of words has given the Israeli occupying power a propaganda prize to push into oblivion her own fatal violations of Palestinian press freedom. For example, who remembers now the shooting twice by the Israeli soldiers of Palestinian news cameraman, Imad Ghanem, 21, on 5 July, which a Reuters video showed bullets hitting his body as he lay injured on the ground, a crime that was condemned by The International Federation of Journalists as “a vicious and brutal example of deliberate targeting of a journalist”?! Ghanem was one of the leaders of the demonstrations to demand the release of the British journalist Alan Johnston during his kidnap ordeal in Gaza months ago.
Or, seven years on, who remembers now the Palestinian media breakthrough of the 27-minute video film which was aired on TV screens all over the world showing live the Palestinian child Mohammad al-Durrah as he was shot dead by the IOF soldiers while trying to seek the protection of his father’s embrace?
A BBC Ad. recruiting a “Project Director, Palestinian Territories” to advise Palestinian journalists sounded timely enough: “The Project Director will be responsible for managing and coordinating delivery of the Trust’s EIDHR-Dutch co-funded project in Palestine titled: ‘Support for the Palestinian Media Sector with Focus on Building Sustainable Mechanisms for Professional Development of Journalists and Media Professionals’. The project aims to increase the level of networking and dialogue between media professionals in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”
Outside Israeli, U.S. and European intervention has created and sustaining the current inter-Palestinian political crisis, leading to the raging war of words. Should outside intervention and anti-Hamas incitement stop the crisis would relieve the pressure on media to allow for national reconciliation, which in turn would give space for the war of words to subside, leaving behind bitter national memories.
*Nicola Nasser is a veteran Arab journalist in Kuwait, Jordan, UAE and Palestine; he is based in Bir Zeit, West Bank of the Israeli-occupied territories.