Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August/September 1997, pgs. 29-30

Special Report

Palestinian Press Censorship: Both Heavy-Handed and Subtle

by Joshua Stayn

When Jamil Salameh gave an editor an article last April that compared the Palestinian legal system unfavorably to the Israeli system, the Gaza attorney expected next to see his treatise in the Gaza Bar Association's quarterly law journal. Instead, he saw the unpublished article in Gaza Central Prison, where he was interrogated for five hours about the article's supposedly slanderous content. A member of the Bar Association had sent Salameh's article to Khalid al-Qidrah, attorney general of the Palestinian Authority (PA), who arrested and jailed its author for nine days without charges before releasing him.

Several recent articles in the Palestinian press have praised the system that enabled Israeli police to interrogate senior government officials allegedly responsible for an Israeli political corruption scandal. But Salameh's article went further, asking when Palestinians can expect to see similar democratic mechanisms in the Palestinian territories.

Salameh's arrest marks the first time a Palestinian writer has been jailed for an unpublished article. Though Palestinian leaders agreed to "provide a democratic basis for the establishment of Palestinian institutions" at Oslo in September 1995, many Palestinian and international human rights groups have accused them of restricting the media's freedom since the PA took control of parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip two years ago.

The absence of a free press reflects the problems that have accompanied Palestinian state-building. Israeli military authorities, Palestinian government officials and newspaper owners and editors all act to restrict Palestinian journalists' freedom to print what they see fit.

Since 1967 the Israeli military has required all Israeli and Arabic newspapers published in Israel, specifically including East Jerusalem, where most Palestinian papers are based, to submit to government censorship or to give up their publishing permits. Whenever the censor deems an article a threat to the public order, he can prevent its publication or distribution.

According to Moshe Fogel, director of the Israeli Government Press Office, official censorship varies dramatically with content. "On a given day, the censor may pull several articles or just a couple of lines. But one thing is certain: The quantity of censorship has significantly decreased since the signing of the Oslo agreements."

Israeli censorship has declined since Oslo, agreed Maher Al-Sheikh, managing editor of the Jerusalem-based Al-Quds, the widest circulation Palestinian newspaper in the territories. "But the Israeli government still censors an average of at least five or six of the articles we submit each day," he said.

"What the Israelis denied to us for so long, we are now denying to ourselves."

When Israel transferred power to the Palestinian Authority in May 1995, many Palestinians read the PA's decision not to create an official censor as a sign of new freedom for the press. A 50-article Palestinian Press Law protecting every Palestinian's "absolute right to express his opinion in a free manner either verbally, in writing, photography or drawing," enacted by PA President Yasser Arafat in July 1995, seemed to secure that freedom. However, in practice, government censorship did not disappear with the establishment of Palestinian self-rule.

"What the Israelis denied to us for so long, we are now denying to ourselves," said Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist. Eid was speaking at a recent conference on media and democracy sponsored by an Israeli-Palestinian think tank in Jerusalem.

Several Palestinian journalists participating in the conference cited their government as the worst, albeit unofficial, offender.

One way PA officials censor the press is by forcibly closing offices and hampering distribution of Palestinian newspapers that criticize government institutions. Last October, the district prosecutor in the northern West Bank town of Jenin shut down a non-political Palestinian weekly, Jenin, covering civic affairs, sports, and local news, for libeling the local labor union and for failing to hold a publishing license. The Palestinian Police jailed Imad Abu-Zahra, Jenin's publisher, and threatened its printer with arrest if he continued to print the newspaper. The police "temporarily closed" the newspaper and held Abu-Zahra for three months until they discovered that Jenin held a proper publishing license from the PA Ministry of Information. Nevertheless, Jenin has not been published since.

Another way Palestinian officials supress the Palestinian media is by arresting editors and journalists who do not advance government interests. On Dec. 23, 1995 Maher Al-Alami, editor-in-chief of Al-Quds, received a telephone call from the PA president's office, ordering that an article about a meeting in Bethlehem between President Arafat and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch be printed as the following day's headline story. In his speech, the Patriarch had likened Arafat to a caliph who spared and protected the Christians when he conquered Jerusalem in the 14th century.

Page 8 Not Good Enough

Finding no space on page one, Al-Alami published the article on page 8 of 24 instead. On Christmas Day the president of the PA Security Force telephoned Al-Alami and ordered him to come to the PA Security Office in Jericho. When Al-Alami arrived he was arrested and jailed for failing to obey the president's office.

Six days later, under intense pressure from the international media, Arafat released Al-Alami and personally met with the editor. "He apologized but he still insisted that I should have run the article on page one," said Al-Alami in a May telephone interview. "I told him there wasn't any space because the front page was already full of other stories about him."

Al-Alami said he expressed to Arafat his belief that "an editor has the right to evaluate the news and to decide where to put it." But Al-Alami admitted that he now carefully considers PA interests and requests before he sends an issue to press.

PA Ministry of Information officials did not return telephone calls despite several attempts to contact them. But Attorney General al-Qidrah stated upon Salameh's release that he thinks legal and judicial matters are not appropriate subjects for discussion in the media.

Many Palestinian journalists also believe that Palestinian newspaper publishers, owners and editors-in-chief censor sensitive news because they are afraid of jeopardizing their social standing.

Nabil Khatib, bureau chief of the Middle East Broadcasting Center, said he recently wrote a story for Al-Hayat al-Jadida, one of three Palestinian dailies, about a careless doctor in the West Bank city of Ramallah who misdiagnosed a child patient as being dead when the child was still alive. The West Bank hospital deposited the child's body in cold storage for two days before someone realized what had happened. Khatib found out which doctor made the mistake.

"That would be front page news in the United States, no?" asked Khatib. "But here, my editor made the story a news brief in which the name of the hospital and doctor, and even the date were not published. He said he didn't want to cause trouble in the social community."

According to one reporter for the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, such reactions are particularly frustrating for Palestinians because Israel right next door enjoys a relatively free press, despite occasional government censorship of security matters. Some Israeli editors even get around this censorship by giving the story to a foreign journalist. If the foreign journalist finds a way to get the story into his own publication, the Israeli editor then publishes the same item as a reprint from the foreign press.

Most Palestinians watch Israel television in their living rooms and wonder why they do not see the same stories or depth of coverage in their own media. A reporter, who requested anonymity, said Salameh's arrest in Gaza was a perfect example. "That story was on Israeli radio and in all the Israeli papers, but I didn't see it anywhere in the Palestinian media," he said.

As with printed media, the PA denies censoring Palestinian television and radio news. "We do not censor anything or control anything," said Mutawaqil Taha, director of the Palestinian Ministry of Information, in an interview with Palestine Report, a Jerusalem-based Palestinian weekly. But many Palestinians remain convinced that President Arafat's office strictly controls both state-run and several small private television and radio stations in the West Bank and Gaza.

On May 21, 1997 Daoud Kuttab, director of Al-Quds Educational Television, a private station, said he was arrested and jailed for televising live sessions of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Kuttab, who is also an International Press Freedom Award recipient, has a license to air PLC sessions. But he said that the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation regularly jams his broadcasts. "There are some people within the executive branch who do not feel comfortable with that level of openness or criticism," said lawyer Jonathan Kuttab, Daoud Kuttab's brother.

Notwithstanding threats to journalistic expression posed by government and editorial censorship, Palestinian reporters unanimously agree that the greatest threat to free press in the territories is self-censorship. "Repeated censorship by the government and by editors has led us to impose upon ourselves a moral and psychological censorship," said journalist Hannia Bitar of The Jerusalem Times.

Previously arrested Al-Quds editor Al-Alami said Bitar is correct. "There definitely is severe self-censorship in the territories today. From experience, we have a good idea of what they consider provoking news, so we don't publish it," he said.

A few journalists said they have avoided censorship and arrest only because the encounters of Al-Alami's and other colleagues have taught them to censor themselves. "Al-Alami's experience made me cautious about my own journalism," said Abdelraouf Arnaout, a reporter for Al-Ayyam. Arnaout said he wanted to write about Al-Alami's arrest, but refrained because he knew the editor was arrested by the president of the PA Security Force.

"Whenever you have an issue relating to the PA Security Offices, you can't write the whole truth," said Arnaout. "You can say someone is arrested, but you can't say why. Now what kind of an article would that make?"

Asked whether his self-censorship comes from fear of severe government response or from himself, Arnaout replied, "I've reached the point now where, whenever I come upon particularly sensitive issue, I just don't bother writing about it. Because I know, before I even begin to write the article, that the newspaper won't publish it."

Such behavior demonstrates that some Palestinians who hold key positions are not thinking seriously about advancing toward democracy and an open society, claimed Eid, who also directs the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. "If this is how we behave when we are on the road to liberation and statehood, how then should we look forward to complete independence?"

However, journalist Hanna Siniora insisted Arnaout and Eid are too pessimistic. "Sure, we are not as far along as the United States or Europe," said the publisher of The Jerusalem Times. "But if you compare Palestine with other Arab countries, we publish more criticism of government officials than they do. People here need to realize that democracy and freedom of speech and of the press don't come overnight. They grow with the struggle."

Additional information