The Continuing Struggle of Palestinian Journalists for Freedom of the
Press in the Palestinian Authority
By Khaled Abu Toameh
When Arafat arrived in Gaza in 1994, there was a lot of hope that now
the Palestinians would have a free media. However, the first thing the
PLO did was to order an immediate crackdown on the Palestinian
Many local journalists had their offices torched. Some were arrested,
beaten, or had their equipment confiscated.
Those who came with Arafat from Tunis came with what can be called
"Arab regime" mentality, the mentality of Gamal Abdul Nasser, the
mentality of Arab dictatorships. They wanted to make sure that the
Palestinian media was 100 percent under control. They secured
by appointing editors, by closing down newspapers, and by funding
What is the difference between the young guard and the old guard?
Mazen believes in the political track, that the only way to achieve
something is through negotiations. The young guard believes there
should be a two-track policy: negotiations and "resistance." The young
guard is not prepared to give up the military option. So a victory for
the young guard is not necessarily a victory for moderate voices.
The Palestinians in general are a people who want freedom and
democracy. They have been exposed both to the Israeli democratic
system and to the Western democratic system. Democracy might
but not in the near future. As long as you have armed gangs in the
streets and as long as the Palestinian security forces are not real
security forces and as long as there is no rule of law, you can't have
Three years ago I began writing a daily report for the Jerusalem Post.
The irony is that, as an Arab Muslim, I feel freer to write for this
Jewish paper than I do for any Arab newspaper. I have no problem
writing for any Arab newspaper if it will provide me with a free
platform and not censor my writing. My editors at the Jerusalem Post
do not interfere with my writing.
When Arafat arrived in Gaza in 1994, there was a lot of hope that now
Palestinians would have a free media like the Jews have.
Unfortunately, the first thing the PLO did when they arrived was to
order an immediate crackdown, not on Hamas or Islamic Jihad but on
Palestinian media. The result was that many local Palestinian
journalists - including those who were working with Reuters, AP, those
who had independent press offices - had their offices torched. Some
them were arrested, some were beaten, some had their equipment
confiscated. It was even sadder to see how the foreign media did not
really cover the story.
The "Arab Regime" Mentality of the PLO Media
Why was there a crackdown? Because those who came with Arafat
Tunis came with a different mentality. They did not live here. Most of
them had never spoken to an Israeli Jew in their lives. As such, they
came with what could be called an "Arab regime" mentality, the
mentality of Gamal Abdul Nasser, the mentality of Arab dictatorships.
They wanted to make sure that the Palestinian media was 100
under control. They secured control by appointing editors, by closing
down newspapers, and by funding competing newspapers.
Jibril Rajoub, for example, ordered a crackdown on the pro-Jordanian
An-Nahar newspaper in Jerusalem and closed it down. Another
edited by the Khatib family, which had been operating with an Israeli
license between 1967 and 1994, had its offices burnt down, and the
publisher fled to London.
Today there are three major Palestinian newspapers: Al-Quds, which
privately owned, and Al-Hayam and Al-Hayat al-Jadeeda, which are
funded by the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians also have an
official TV station, which for many years was no different from the
rest of the media under Arab dictatorships, a media that represents
the official line all the time.
Palestinians are sick and tired of turning on Palestinian TV and
watching what their president did and what their prime minister did
that day. They open a Palestinian newspaper to find a major story on
the front page about how "his excellency the president, may God
protect him and prolong his life, today received a cable of support
from the deputy chairman of the students' union in the southern
province of Sudan." This can't really be a major story.
In 1995, under Arafat, AFP sent a photographer out into the streets of
Gaza to take a picture of ordinary life, and he came back with a
picture of children playing with a donkey on the beach. When the
picture was published, the photographer was arrested the same day
beaten up. PA officials told him: "Are you trying to represent us as a
donkey?" In another incident, an editor was arrested for failing to
publish a story about Arafat on page one.
There have been some positive changes towards a freer Palestinian
media because there are many good and professional journalists out
there. Not all Palestinian journalists see themselves as foot soldiers
serving the revolution or the leadership. In fact, most of the
journalists I know have no role in the Arab media, but instead work in
the foreign media.
Reporting from the Palestinian Street
Many of my foreign colleagues have tended to ignore the voice of the
man in the street, but it is not enough to interview this or that
official. To understand what the Palestinians are really thinking, you
need to sit in the cafes. There were days when I would go to Nablus,
for example, and I would hear Palestinians telling me, "You know
We really hope the Jews will come back and reoccupy Nablus. It's not
because we love Israel, but because we're fed-up with the Palestinian
Authority and Palestinian corruption."
The foreign media did not pay enough attention to stories about
corruption in the Palestinian areas, or to stories about abuse of
human rights, to all that was really happening under the Palestinian
Authority. They did not want to pay attention to the growing
frustration on the Palestinian street as a result of mismanagement, as
a result of the abuse of power, as a result of monopolizing of power
by the PLO.
An Intifada Against the Palestinian Authority?
The intifada that began in September 2000 did not break out because
there was a real threat to the Al-Aksa mosque. This intifada was
supposed to be directed first and foremost toward the Palestinian
Authority, and that's where things were heading. If you look at the
weeks before the intifada, for the first time we were beginning to see
signs of mutiny. Palestinians began attacking Palestinian Authority
security installations in Nablus, Ramallah, Tulkarm, and Jenin. For
the first time you would see Palestinians talking on TV about
corruption in the Palestinian Authority. So I think Arafat began to
feel the heat under his feet and saw an opportunity to divert all this
frustration and anger toward someone else.
When President Bush announced his boycott of Arafat in 2001,
you saw more and more Palestinians speaking out. Suddenly the talk
about corruption was no longer taboo and suddenly demands for
and democracy and a free media were everywhere.
The PA Media Under Abu Mazen
Have things now changed with regard to the media under a
Authority led by Abu Mazen? Unfortunately, no. In the three major
newspapers you used to see Yasser Arafat's picture on the front page
and now you see Abu Mazen's, but you don't see a change in the
content. You don't feel that the Palestinian journalists are really
free to write what they want.
Many Palestinians hope for better times, but I don't see real changes.
In fact, I see very worrying signs. Under Abu Mazen there was a
written order issued by the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate that
forbids Palestinian journalists from reporting on internal clashes.
Under Abu Mazen there is a written directive that says cameramen
not allowed to take pictures of masked gunmen marching with their
in the streets.
Law and Order in Gaza
Gaza today is controlled by armed militias. The Palestinian Authority
pays the salaries, but the gunmen control the streets. You don't know
who's hiding behind the mask in Gaza. A hundred and fifty gunmen
surround a house and snatch a general from his home in his pajamas
shoot him in the street just outside Abu Mazen's office, and no one
saw anything and there is not even one eyewitness. It's a very
dangerous situation. Abu Mazen has not done anything - and I don't
even think he can - to stop this phenomenon. Almost every second
person in Gaza has a gun, and this has created a very frightening
The worsening chaos and lawlessness also prevents potential
from putting their money into Gaza. Palestinian businessmen abroad
will not put money into an area where there is no rule of law. In my
view, this is the number one issue on the Palestinian agenda these
days. Abu Mazen ran on a platform that clearly said: "I am going to
fight corruption, anarchy, and lawlessness." One year later, the
situation has not changed.
Young Guard vs. Old Guard
Abu Mazen can no longer ignore the young guard who are now openly
challenging him, but what is the difference between the young guard
and the old guard? What is the difference between Barghouti and Abu
Mazen? Abu Mazen believes in the political track, that the only way to
achieve something is through negotiations. The young guard believes
there should be a two-track policy: negotiations and "resistance," or
what Israelis call "terrorism." The young guard is not prepared to
give up the military option. So a victory for the young guard is not
necessarily a victory for moderate voices. Who won the Fatah
in Nablus and Jenin? The commanders of the Aksa Martyrs Brigade,
guys who are carrying the weapons.
The young guard is rushing to take over. Many members of the old
are leaving the country, moving to Arab states, because they are
afraid of the young guard. Abu Mazen is sending signals of weakness.
His policy is based on trying to appease everyone - Hamas, Islamic
Jihad, Fatah, the old guard, the young guard, Israel, America, the
Arab states - and that's impossible. It's not going to work.
Fatah and the Palestinian security forces are first and foremost
responsible for the anarchy and lawlessness. The Palestinian security
forces were never real security forces; they were, and some of them
still are, functioning as private militias. According to figures
released by the Palestinian Interior Ministry, Fatah and the
Palestinian security forces were involved in most of the incidents of
violence in the Gaza Strip in the first nine months of 2005.
I believe that the Palestinians in general are a people who want
democracy. The Palestinians are among the most educated in the
world and they have been exposed both to the Israeli democratic
and to the Western democratic system. Unlike many of the Arab
countries, there is an open debate today in Palestinian society. I
believe democracy might happen, but not in the near future. As long
you have armed gangs in the streets and as long as the Palestinian
security forces are not real security forces and as long as there is
no rule of law, you can't have democracy.
* * *
Khaled Abu Toameh has been senior Palestinian affairs
for the Jerusalem Post since 2002. Prior to that he wrote for fourteen
years for Kol Yerushalayim, a local Jerusalem newspaper owned by
Yediot Ahronot, and was the only Arab writing in an Israeli newspaper
in Hebrew about the Palestinian areas.
He has been Palestinian
producer for NBC News since 1988, and has been writing for US
World Report on Palestinian affairs since 1989. He has produced
documentaries for BBC Channel 4, German TV, and Australian TV,
He is the co-author of "What Happened to Reform of the
Palestinian Authority?" (Jerusalem Issue Brief 3-20, March 2004), with
Dan Diker. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at
the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on December 1,
This Jerusalem Issue Brief is available online at:
Reprinted with permission from Jerusalem Issue Brief,
Institute for Contemporary Affairs, Jerusalem Center for Public
from the February 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine