September 22, 2008
As Aeschylus observed nearly 2,500 years ago, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” In the Palestinian territories, truth is being occupied by various factions and is in jeopardy of being eliminated altogether.
Stroll down the streets of Gaza, and it all becomes evident. While in the United States, a kind of “censorship” is taking place as the more serious-minded newspapers and magazines are being supplanted by tabloids and bubblegum for the brain, in Gaza, one is struck by the sheer absence of news”even of the sensationalist variety. Scan our racks, and one finds that major papers like Al Quds, Al Hayat-Al Jadeeda, and Al Ayyam, which are all loyal to Fatah, are missing. This is certainly not the first time newspapers have been surpressed in the occupied territories, though this time Israel is not to blame.
In June 2007, Ramallah’s Fatah-led government under Dr. Salam Fayyad banned the Hamas-affiliated Falsteen and Al Risalah newspapers. This past July 28, following an explosion which killed six Palestinians and injured more than 15, Hamas police forces confiscated Fatah-affiliated newspapers at the Eretz crossing and prevented them from entering Gaza. As a result of Hamas’s July 2008 ban, the Ramallah government began arresting media crews and journalists working for a Hamas-owned television station in the West Bank.
This media standoff between Gaza’s Hamas leadership and the Fatah leadership in the West Bank has resulted in a number of journalists being arrested by both sides. It has affected freedom of expression within Palestinian society. Moreover, the dispute continues to escalate, as each political faction attempts to control what information Palestinians may be permitted to hear or read.
Taher Al Nounno, spokesman of Gaza’s de facto Hamas government, offered the following rationale for banning the three Fatah newspapers:
We have given them some notes to make their report more professional, but they have refused to deal with us. … The three newspapers have been publishing lies and instigating [unrest]. They are a long way from professionalism in showing [both sides of the argument].”
In a separate interview, Fatah leader Nimir Hamad, political adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, justified the decision to ban the distribution of Hamas-affiliated newspapers”despite the fact that Hamas has recently allowed Al Quds daily to be distributed in Gaza: “Al Resalah and Falastin are both instigation and propagandist newspapers calling for strife,” Hamad asserted, “and…are publishing extremist and fundamentalist thinking.”
While Fatah prevent Hamas TV crews from reporting in the West Bank, Hamas retaliates by prohibiting Fatah- and Palestinian Authority-affiliated crews from working in Gaza. Both parties have jailed journalists, closed radio stations, and confiscated media equipment. In the occupied territories, Palestinians suffer under an ongoing war on words.
According to the internationally respected watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RWB), at least nine news media outlets”three of them state-owned, the rest privately owned”have ceased operating in Gaza since June 2007. The RWB also has noted numerous incidents, including assaults and abductions, constituting intimidation of journalists by Palestinian authorities in both the West Bank and Gaza in retaliation for reporting deemed unfavorable.
Unlike the United States or most Western nations, neither Israel nor Palestine has a constitution (although both operate under respective basic laws). As a result, the rights of freedom of expression and freedom of the press are arbitrarily bestowed rather than guaranteed by law. The closest such guarantee is found in the Palestinian Authority’s Basic Law, which states that every person has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and expression, whether orally, in writing, or through other means.
In 1995, however, the Palestinian Authority instituted a press law making it a crime to criticize the Palestinian Authority or the president. Although on the books for more than a decade, until recently the law was not enforced either in Gaza or the West Bank”but the escalation of attacks on press offices, arrests of journalists, and the cessation of newspaper distribution within Palestine are evidence that the law is now be implemented.
The language of the law applies to domestic journalists rather than foreign news bureaus, which continue to operate out of their offices in the West Bank and Gaza. But the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) notes that due to the threat of arrest and torture, an increasing number of independent journalists are opting out of covering Palestine, seeing the risks as too great.
In a recently released report, HRW states, “Over the past 12 months, Palestinians in both places [West Bank and Gaza] have suffered serious abuses at the hands of their own security forces, in addition to persistent abuses by the occupying power, Israel.”
The report further documents that since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, it has tortured detainees, conducted arbitrary arrests of political opponents, and clamped down on freedom of expression and assembly. Furthermore, the report points out, its rival Fatah is guilty of exactly the same crimes in the West Bank: the torture of journalists and sympathizers, arbitrary detention and the closing down of media organizations sympathetic to Hamas.
Israeli censorship has long been a part of life in the territories. One recalls Prime Minister Golda Meir’s 1971 edict erasing Palestine and the Green Line from all maps produced in Israel, or Israeli occupation forces ordering the removal of Palestinian political symbols”flags, posters and more. Israeli authorities censored coverage of the first and second Palestinians intifadas, meticulously reviewing Arabic publications for “security”-related material, and enforced its ban on critical reporting with arrests, beatings and the confiscation of press cards. According to RWB, Israeli soldiers have shot at least nine Palestinian journalists, including reporters for the Associated Press, Agence France Presse (AFP), and Al Ayyam newspaper.
One shouldn”t forget that the Israeli and Palestinian security forces, which are both implicated in the destruction of freedom of speech in Palestine, are funded by and receive political protection from the United States and the European Union. HRW has called upon these enabling nations to cease providing aid to agencies guilty of the worst abuses and to begin publicly criticizing the West Bank and Gaza security forces.
Without such intercession by the international community, Israel, Hamas, and Fatah will continue restricting freedom of expression, abusing journalists, closing media offices, confiscating equipment, preventing the distribution of newspapers, and assaulting journalists during demonstrations”all of which serve to prevent information from reaching those directly affected. It also renders the entire world ignorant of facts”facts that might, in time, lead to a peaceful resolution of the longest running conflict in the Middle East.
Mohammed Omer is a Palestinian journalist living in the Gaza Strip. His work has appeared in The New Statesman and other publications, and recently Omer was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for his coverage of the occupied territories. He blogs at RafahToday.org.