Palestinian Media Caught in Internal Crossfire

The editing room of Al Quds educational TV is still riddled with bullet holes. The poor Palestinian broadcaster has little money to replace the equipment damaged in an attack by three armed men earlier this month. Damaged premises, journalists getting beaten up, and other forms of harassment have become almost a badge of honor among Palestinian news media trying to maintain their independence.

Instances of intimidation have by all accounts escalated over the last few months. The increase coincides with rising tensions within the Fatah movement, journalists say. Fatah is the party of power in the Palestinian Authority. "The attack on us was meant as a signal to others," says Ibrahim Khleife, deputy director of the Institute for Modern Media at Al Quds University which runs the education channel. "The message was to stay in line, not to diverge from the consensus." This time it is not the Israelis making life hard for journalists; they blame the political tensions within their own society. The attacks have become so frequent that 42 lawmakers have signed a petition calling for Parliament to discuss the problem. The Cabinet has said it will look into security for journalists.

The attack on Al Quds was blatant. "Three men armed with M16 machine-guns stormed into the room and demanded a cassette," says Haroun Abu Arrar who was working with a colleague in the editing suite to prepare the morning broadcast. "Before I could ask what cassette, they started beating me."

Khleife says it is unlikely the men were looking for some cassette. The station mostly broadcasts programs for youth and women, and concentrates on social issues. "I think we were just an easy target for them to make a point to Palestinian journalists in general. These men are trying to create an atmosphere of fear." The Arab satellite news channel Al Arabiye has more luxurious offices on the other side of town. The shiny new furniture and equipment means at least they had the money to repair the damage from a raid. Five masked and armed men had stormed into the office that Arabiye shares with other Arab broadcasters in September last year. The attack came shortly after the news organization received complaints about its coverage.

The armed men locked up Khatib and two employees in a room and proceeded to wreck the premises. "I asked why but they didn’t say," recalls Khatib. "They only said that this was the last time they paid us a visit without killing us." Many journalists bemoan the self-censorship that they say Palestinian media organizations practice, though this is not a recent phenomenon. The controversial head of the Journalists’ Syndicate, Naim Toubassi, blames the low standards of many Palestinian journalists for a part of the trouble. "Some of them act as if they are spokesmen for one faction or another," he says. "No wonder they get caught up in the violence." But many journalists see Toubassi as a PA stooge. They say his demands would lead to even more self-censorship.

At Arabiye, Khatib says he feels immune form such pressures. "Local media will only publish something controversial after we have already broken the story, that is why we remain in the frontline."

Last month the Arabiye correspondent in Gaza was beaten savagely at gunpoint. Most of the threats come from the more militant elements in society who oppose any discussion on the future of the conflict, Khleife says. Journalists and PA officials agree that lack of security and the weakness of the central authority is one of the biggest problems. This allows people with a grudge to take law into their own hands with little fear of being punished. The incidents are backed by a political push, and also made possible a form of societal breakdown in the wake of more than three years of violence, journalists here say. The situation is threatening to turn into a free-for-all, says freelance journalist Walid Batrawi. "It is often not even about the issues but about persons. The most dangerous thing to do now is to threaten the reputation of someone or to damage their interests."

Read more by Ferry Biedermann