The official grip on the media has barely relaxed since the Israeli-Palestinian fighting that began in September 2000. Those supporting opponents of President Yasser Arafat were censored in 2003.
President Yasser Arafat agreed in early 2003, under international pressure, to create a post of prime minister. He has been confined to his Ramallah headquarters by the Israeli army since December 2001 and hoped the move would ensure his political survival. In late February, new prime minister Mahmud Abbas, Arafat’s right-hand man and number two in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), said the Palestinian leadership wanted to implement the peace "road map" supported by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.
A month later, Israel adopted the "road map," but with 14 reservations. In the spring, Abbas (better known as Abu Mazen) negotiated a truce with the radical Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. A summit meeting on 4 June in Aqaba (Jordan) was attended by Abbas, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and US President George W. Bush, who for the first time directly involved himself in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to an international peace plan involving reciprocal concessions and setting up a Palestinian state by 2005.
Three months after taking office, Abbas resigned after open disagreement with Arafat over control of the security forces. He said he was also quitting because the peace process had been totally blocked by the Israelis. Ahmed Qureia (Abu Alaa) replaced him as prime minister in September and with difficulty formed a "crisis government" as Palestinian attacks increased.
An opinion poll in November showed most Palestinians were "dissatisfied" or "quite dissatisfied" with Arafat’s performance as head of the Palestinian Authority. But he remained more popular (at 26%) than any other Palestinian figure, including Hamas founder and spiritual guide Ahmad Yassin (11.2%) and another Islamist leader, Abdelaziz al-Rantissi (4.4%).
The "road map" required both sides to renounce "incitement to violence" and Arafat signed a decree on 20 June banning such calls and warning that those who committed violence would be punished. Israel continued to accuse the Palestinian Authority of inciting violence through the media but admitted that since Abbas’ cabinet had taken office at the end of April, the tone had changed. The Palestinian Authority called for a privately-owned radio station, Arutz Sheva, which is close to Jewish settlers on the West Bank and in Gaza, to be shut down for inciting violence.
The Palestinian Authority told all Palestinian media in early July to soften their anti-Israeli rhetoric and information minister Nabil Amr said his ministry was spelling out the political and journalistic limits to them daily. All Palestinian media, public and privately-owned, received written instructions. The state-owned Palestinian TV broadcast a pacifist clip in late July called "A Song for Peace," subtitled in Hebrew and showing an Israeli child walking with Palestinian children.
The Palestinian media is on probation, exercises self-censorship and has to put up with the obstruction of the Israeli occupation and the threats of the Palestinian Authority, which especially apply to the media favouring Hamas and opponents to President Arafat’s Fateh organisation. Palestinian Authority official statements are automatically relayed and personally criticising Arafat is out of the question. However, unlike in many Arab countries, there are many independent newspapers, magazines and radio and TV stations on the West Bank and in Gaza. The Internet is not censored and people have free access to satellite TV stations.
A journalist arrested
The correspondent in Gaza of the pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera, Saifeddin Shahin, was arrested at dawn on 6 January 2003 and interrogated by Palestinian security police for several hours before being freed later that day. He had earlier spoken by phone to a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades who criticised the Palestinian Authority during the conversation. The Brigades had claimed responsibility for a double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv the day before. Palestinian security officials said they arrested Shahin because they wanted information from him.
Harassment and obstruction
The weekly Al-Rissala, organ of the Islamic Salvation Party, was closed by Palestinian police on 17 March 2003. The paper, which is close to Hamas and critical of the Palestinian Authority, has been targeted by police for several years and it was the third time they had closed it. Editor Ghazi Hamad was told the order came from Arafat’s office. The High Court had ordered on 14 May 2002 that the paper to be allowed to reopen at once but police refused to obey the decision. The paper resumed publication by itself on 31 October 2002.
A radio station close to Hamas, Al-Aqsa, was closed by police on 20 June 2003, officially for not having a licence after broadcasting for only four days. Another new station, Alwan, was ordered closed the same day.
Palestinian journalists and writers at a conference in Gaza on 1 July criticised the Palestinian Authority’s grip on the public TV station Palestine TV and called for an independent body to be set up to monitor the station’s output and management. Talal Okal, a prominent Gaza journalist, said the station had been founded the same year as Al-Jazeera but had not made as much progress. He deplored its organisational problems and lack of professionalism which he said was why few people watched it.
After a suicide bombing killed more than 20 people in Jerusalem on 20 August Palestinian police banned Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which both claimed responsibility, from the media. The next day, the information ministry denied the government had ordered a ban.
The Ramallah offices of the all-news satellite TV station Al-Arabiya were ransacked on 13 September by five armed men who said they were from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. The masked attackers, who had M-16 assault rifles and clubs, forced three staff into a room and told them without explanation: "This is a warning. You have to leave." Nobody was hurt but computers and office material were smashed.
A few hours later, a caller who said he was from the Brigades phoned to say they had nothing to do with the attack. President Arafat called the station’s staff to his headquarters and promised to investigate. "He seemed very angry and told us those responsible would be found," said correspondent Hadel Wahdan.