P.A. Tortures Journalists—Heads Up

December 28, 2008

A Sober Reminder: PA Tortures and Intimidates Palestinian Journalists

It is an understandable if foolish penchant of Western “observers” to view Fatah on the West Bank as “moderate,” certainly in contrast with the wild men of Gaza. More moderate, perhaps. But that hardly makes them anything remotely resembling what we, in civic polities, would consider moderate. As a reminder, I post here, with a few comments interspersed, the comments made to the Hudson Institute by Israeli Arab journalist Khaled abu Toameh about the situation of the news media under Mahmoud Abbas, the kindly, grandfatherly figure who replaced Arafat, and upon whom Dennis Ross lavishes the same hopes that he had, during Oslo, on his predecessor.

PA Tortures Journalists
December 17, 2008 | Khaled Abu Toameh

“This is not Israel, where you are allowed to see a lawyer.”

Over the past two years Palestinian journalists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been subjected to a systematic campaign of intimidation that has resulted in the death of some and the detention of others.

The campaign, which is being waged by both Hamas and Fatah, has received almost no attention from human rights groups and advocates of the freedom of expression throughout the world.

By contrast, when a Palestinian journalist is accidentally wounded by Israeli gunfire during clashes with Palestinians, the incident makes headlines in major media outlets in the US and EU.

The prevailing pattern across the board in this conflict, the necessary condition for sustaining our cognitive egocentrism about the Palestinians, despite how violently they violate every one of our expectations about rational, positive-sum actors.

What is most disturbing about the campaign of intimidation is the fact that it’s being spearheaded by the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. This is the same authority that is receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from American and European taxpayers’ money every month to build a proper judicial system and promote democracy and transparency among the Palestinians.

One should not be surprised when Hamas targets journalists. The Islamist movement has long been known for its tough measures against “unfriendly” reporters.

At least 13 Palestinian journalists have been arrested and tortured by Hamas’s militias in since the movement took full control over the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007. Hamas also raided the offices of most of these journalists and confiscated computers and other equipment.

In the most recent case, Ala Salameh, a reporter for a radio station in the Gaza Strip, complained that Hamas militiamen detained him for several hours and forced him to eat contaminated food.

In the West Bank, Abbas’s security forces have also focused their efforts on fighting against any journalist who don’t toe the line.

More than 10 Palestinian journalists have been targeted by Abbas’s security forces over the past few months. Most of them were held in detention without trial and denied the right to see a lawyer of family members.

Some of the reporters said they had been interrogated about “negative” stories that they had published in various newspapers and magazines. The stories were often related to financial corruption among the top brass of the Palestinian leadership or to human rights violations in Abbas’s West Bank detention centers.

According to testimonies provided by the journalists and local human rights activists, most of the detainees were subjected to physical and verbal abuse at the hands of the Palestinian security forces.

When one of the detained journalists complained about the harsh conditions he was being held in, his interrogator reportedly responded: “This is not Israel here where you are allowed to see a lawyer and petition the High Court.”

Abbas’s anti-media campaign has also taken other forms. For example, when Al-Jazeera recently failed to carry a live broadcast of a speech he gave in Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority president issued an order banning the station’s representatives from entering his compound or covering news related to the activities of senior Palestinian officials.

In other words, like any other “leader” in an honor-shame culture, Abbas is vain. Arafat used to fly into rages when Palestinian newspapers did not put his picture on the front page. Note that the method used to punish Al Jazeera (which has done more for the Palestinian cause than any news outlet in the world), is the same used to intimidate the Western media on a regular basis: deny access.

In another recent incident, the largest Palestinian news agency, Ramattan, was forced to suspend its work in the West Bank after coming under pressure from Abbas and his top aides. The managers of Ramattan complained that Abbas’s office was trying to turn the independent agency into a “mouthpiece” for the Palestinian Authority.

Like his predecessor Yasser Arafat, Abbas has also banned opposition newspapers in the West Bank. Palestinian journalists who dare to report anything that reflects negatively on Abbas or any of his senior aides are often receive threatening phone calls from his office of members of the Palestinian security forces.

One of the first things that Arafat did after he entered the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1994 was to order a massive crackdown on the Palestinian media to make sure that all those working there were 100% loyal to him. The result of the clampdown was that the majority of Palestinian reporters were too scared to report or talk about financial corruption and human rights violations under Arafat.

What is particularly disturbing is the fact that the Western journalists based in Israel tend to turn a blind eye to the assaults against their Palestinian colleagues. Some of these foreigners say they are afraid of the repercussions if they dare to anger Abbas or Hamas. Others claim that their editors are interested in such stories only if the perpetrators are Israeli soldiers.

As one foreign correspondent recently remarked, “The more anti-Israeli stories I send to my editor, the more popular I become and my chances of winning an award are much higher.”

This is a widespread complaint. (To those who find NPR reporter Linda Gradstein anti-Israel, she responds that NPR shows no interest in the “other” kind of story.) It may well be true across the boards. But it should not distract from a more fundamental source of reporters’ lack of interest in the plight of Palestinian reporters — they’re subject to the same intimidation, perhaps at one remove.

But what the Western journalists need to understand is that the campaign against the Palestinian journalists is also affecting their work. Foreign journalists rely heavily on Palestinian journalists when it comes to covering Palestinian affairs. So when a Palestinian journalist is afraid and under threat, he or she will think twice before they tell the Western correspondent what they know.

Of course, in order to carry any weight, this warning necessitates journalists’ caring about what they report from the Palestinian Territories about life in Palestine. As long as they report about how Israel makes life miserable for the Palestinians, they’re doing their job; as soon as they start to deal with how Palestinian leadership makes life miserable for their own people, they’re traitors to their people and their cause. Nothing better illustrates the difference between civil polities and prime-divider societies run by concerns about honor and shame. And nothing better illustrates the folly of the West than the behavior of its reporters when confronted with so stark a contrast.

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