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Winds of Change Begin to Blow Through Hidebound Palestinian Press

February 8, 2005
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At first glance, Sunday’s Palestinian newspapers seemed to be the same old, same old. Al-Quds, the most popular Palestinian paper, carried the headline, “The Revolutionary Council of Fatah Begins its 25th Conference in Gaza.” Next to it was a huge picture of the Fatah leadership, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the first row.

Next was “Abbas Stresses the Need for Unity in the Palestinian House.” Further down the page were reports on Israeli plans to expand Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem and on U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s impending visit to the region.

But looks can be misleading.

The Palestinian press is undergoing a transformation, gradually departing from its traditional role as a mouthpiece for the government as it becomes if not free, at least freer than it has been.

How thorough the change will be is anyone’s guess. After years of physical and psychological intimidation under Arafat — and with a culture of journalistic self-censorship in the service of the Palestinian cause — few believe Palestinian media will even remotely approach the openness and self-criticism of their Israeli counterparts.

What change there has been is not the result of a confrontation with the political establishment, but comes at Abbas’ request.

Two weeks ago, Abbas met with the heads of Palestinian Television in Gaza and asked them to refrain from the longstanding practice of heaping praise on Palestinian leaders. He asked them to try to compete with popular stations such as Al-Jazeera and highly rated Lebanese stations, which in the past 10 years have adopted Western standards of journalism, at least superficially.

Headlines like Sunday’s still will be part of the scene, but they may in the future be driven by real events, not government dictates.

The directive may have been a function of Abbas’ modesty, but more likely he understands that he stands to gain more from democratic measures than from an Arafat-style personality cult.

“Who watches Palestinian TV?” asked human rights activist Bassem Eid, executive chairman of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. “It sometimes seems that the only ones who watch it are the people” in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s “office trying to pinpoint incitement.”

Eid said Palestinians prefer the Arabic programs on Israel Television because there, at least, they can speak freely.

“Since 1996 I have never been interviewed on Palestinian Television, nor on Palestinian radio,” Eid said. “I was on ’60 Minutes,’ on Tim Sebastian’s ‘Hardtalk’ and on Israel Television, but never in the Palestinian media.”

Eid began criticizing human rights violations under Arafat’s regime in 1996; he was the first to dare to do so publicly. He hopes his days as a lone voice of criticism are over.

Indeed, much has changed. Arafat, who died in November, no longer is around to nod his head quietly, allowing anti-Semitic sermons to be broadcast on Fridays. Neither is he there to enjoy military marches glorifying him as the ultimate leader.

The Palestinian community finally is beginning to emerge from a political pattern characteristic of most Arab regimes in which the worship of the leader sometimes competes with the worship of God.

Arafat expected the media to treat him as if he were one of the prime heroes of Arab history. Like government-controlled media elsewhere in the Arab world, Palestine TV used to air songs hailing Arafat as one of the “great leaders of the Palestinian people.” He used to compare himself to Saladin, the Arab hero who took Jerusalem from the crusaders.

Arafat, who always wore his military uniform, introduced himself as an army general and visibly enjoyed military ceremonies, seemingly compensating for his real history of military defeat.

During the recent Muslim feast of Eid al-Adhar, newspapers did not carry the kind of paid advertisements blessing the leader that were common during the Arafat era. During the election campaign, Abbas personally asked Palestinian media to give his rivals enough time, following complaints that the official media had neglected them.

Abbas met with media representatives again after the election, asking them to steer away from the anti-Israel incitement typical of the Arafat era.

“This is the easiest way to change the atmosphere, ” said reserve Brig. Gen. Shalom Harari, a researcher at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

Moreover, with Abbas’ new policy enjoying wide support among the Palestinian public, there is no more need for contrived worship of the leader.

“The man is much more modest than his predecessor,” Harari said. “He is not a man of slogans.”

Abbas “is a man of the world, who speaks other languages, a man who wears suits and does not toy around with military symbols,” he added.

The Palestinian press’ best days came between the 1982 Lebanon War and the beginning of the first intifada in 1987. The press prospered largely by ignoring the censorship imposed by the Israeli military government.

Once Arafat established the Palestinian Authority in 1994, though, the situation changed.

“Arafat virtually terrorized the journalists,” said Harari, who was then the Arab affairs adviser at Israel’s Defense Ministry.

On July 22, 1987, Naji al-Ali, the best-known Palestinian cartoonists and a critic of the PLO and Arafat, was shot in the face at point-blank range as he left the London offices of the newspaper Al-Qabbas. He lay in a coma for five weeks and then died; no one has been arrested for the murder.

Hisham Makki, director general of Palestinian Television, was murdered in Gaza in January 2001. He was investigating reports of embezzlement, and the trail led to Arafat’s Preventive Security Service.

The message to the press community was clear: Stay away from dirt on Arafat, particularly his bank accounts.

In other cases, journalists were threatened, beaten or had their newspapers closed for implying criticism of the regime or for not giving front-page treatment to stories or photos of Arafat that had little news value.

After so many years, some wonder if the culture of fear, intimidation and self-censorship has become ingrained. Palestinian journalists, in transition, are confused.

Last week, for example, the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate reversed an earlier decision to ban local and foreign journalists from taking pictures of masked gunmen or of children carrying weapons or wearing military uniforms in street demonstrations. The union had said that any Palestinian journalist filming or photographing such images would face sanctions because such pictures “serve Israel” and its “campaign against our just cause.”

At first, local press authorities thought the ban would improve the Palestinians’ cause by hiding the belligerent reality from public view. But they began to feel local and international pressure to reverse the decision.

“Reporters Without Borders,” an international journalists’ rights organization, called the ban “a misguided way to protect children, aimed at misinforming the world about the real situation in the Occupied Territories.”

The report added, “It is also very odd, to say the least, for a journalists’ union to forbid journalists to do their job.”

The Palestinian press is still finding its footing,, testing the ground and checking which way the political wind is blowing. But in general, there is an air of optimism in the air.

“This is also our window of opportunity as a democratic society,” Eid said. “Let’s hope we don’t miss it.”

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