Paper presented at the International Association for Media and Communication Research, American University in Cairo, 25 July 2006.
Presence at this conference creates mixed feelings in me. On the one hand, I wish I were in Beirut, with my colleagues who are keeping education alive at the American University of Beirut, just as they did during the earlier, much longer war that destroyed much of Lebanon – but could not kill it.
On the other hand, it is an honor for me to be here to represent not only my University, but also – albeit unofficially – a country that I love and a city that has been a leading center of communication in the Arab world for decades. The current fighting has made it to the top of international news. But I would like to highlight what did not make the headlines during the past year that I have been in Beirut: the film festivals, art and book exhibitions and concerts that were held in various parts of Lebanon, as people were about to put their nightmares behind them.
Beirut is the city where I learned about freedom of expression when I went there as a student form Iran in the 1970s. Among what I learned were gems in contemporary Arab culture, including the works of two Egyptian artists to whom I would like to pay tribute today – the poet, Ahmad Fouad Negm, and the singer and oud, or lute, player, Shaikh Imam. The volume of songs produced by them is enormous and worthy of analysis and celebration. Here, I shall recite only a short song, about the power of words, our main tools in communication:
Should the sun drown in a sea of clouds
Should the world be engulfed in waves of darkness
Should the sense of sight die in each and every eye
And should all roads turn into never-ending mazes
You who search, and care, for meaning
Shall find nothing to guide you, but eyes made of words.
INTRODUCTION The paper that I shall present is focused on Palestinian journalists, especially those working for the local media, who cover one of the world's defining confrontations, with blurred boundaries between foreign and domestic news, and overlapping military, political, economic and religious themes. The paper was written before the recent escalation of the fighting in Gaza and the outbreak of war on Lebanon. But I believe the main points of it are still valid and the conclusion perhaps even more so.
The paper will begin with an overview of the Palestinian media, which has grown rapidly since the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority, or the PNA, in 1994. It will then consider the constraints faced by the local media, which have received international support during the past decade but have mostly had to survive on their own limited resources. The paper will end by highlighting the rising influence of the local Palestinian media and their need for greater international assistance.
THE PRESS During nearly thirty years of Israeli occupation, several Palestinian papers were licensed by Israel, but some of these were short-lived. The only daily to have survived has been Al Quds (Jerusalem) that was established in 1968. Two new dailies were launched after 1994: the PNA-funded Al Hayat Al Jadida (New Life), and the independent Al Ayyam (Days). Recent years have seen the growth of publications funded by non-governmental organizations, which “provide a unique perspective on thematic issues such as women, the environment, Israeli life and the youth.” These publications mostly lack “hard hitting news and investigative journalism”, with the exception of the monthly, Al Hal (Now), published by Birzeit University's Media Institute (Kuttab, 2006a). Total newspaper circulation in the late 1990s was estimated at 50,000 copies, unchanged since the mid-1980s. The number of readers, however, is believed to have been much higher, with each copy being read by several people (Reuter & Seebold, 2001, pp. 82-91).
TELEVISION In addition to the PNA-controlled Palestinian radio and television, there are 31 private radio stations (Shuwaikh,2006, p. 16.) and 31 private televisions stations (Batrawi, 2001) across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinians also watch many Arabic language satellite television stations, most notably Al-Jazeera.
Private Palestinian broadcasting began while the Palestinian Territories were still under full Israeli occupation. The first station went on air in 1991, the year in which the Palestinians and the Israelis attended the Madrid Conference. The numbers rose rapidly in 1993, when the Declaration of Principles, or the Oslo Agreement, was signed. Some stations were licensed by the Israeli authorities; others were tolerated as long as their output was not political; and yet others were closed down, but some of these resumed work after the PNA had been established.
Almost all private TV stations have been commercial operations, although many owners also say they have been providing a voice for the Palestinian people and contributing to the development of a democratic society (Reuter & Seebold, 2001, pp.118-1209). The Palestinian National Authority is believed to have allowed private TV stations for three main reasons: Firstly, “to set facts on the ground in terms of occupying as many television frequencies as possible”; secondly, “the fear that Israel may at some point close down or attack the government owned Palestinian TV”; and thirdly “because people at the Ministry of Information, especially the Minister” at the time, Yasser Abd Rabbo, believed in freedom of expression (Batrawi, 2001, and Kuttab, 2006a).
The PNA's commitment to freedom of expression was challenged soon, especially because of repeated closures of private radio and television stations in the later 1990s for a variety of reasons. These included the coverage of armed Palestinian protests against Israel and clashes between Israeli and Palestinian forces; broadcasts in support of Iraq after it had been bombed by the US; broadcasts in support of Hamas; discussion of rape within the family in Palestine; and violations of the licensing regulations. In 1997, the director of Al Quds Educational TV, Daoud Kuttab, was detained for a week because of live coverage of a meeting of the Palestine National Council which was discussing allegations of corruption within the PNA (Reuter & Seebold, 2001, pp. 127-129, Kuttab, 2006a).
The PNA's other reasons for allowing private broadcasters – namely to set “facts on the ground” and to have a broadcasting contingency in case of an attack – were confirmed in 2002, during the second intifada, when it relied on private stations to carry the PNA's programs after the Israelis had destroyed the building that housed the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation. During the intifada many private stations were also attacked by the Israeli army. (Batrawi, 2001, update added in 2002).
Almost all private Palestinian radio and television stations started as family operations, with low quality equipment (Batrawi, 2001), often including used Israeli army transmitters bought on the black market (Kuttab, 2006a). They have also lacked professional human resources. The result has been TV programs aimed at entertainment, with huge amounts of material taken from other stations, especially the Arab satellite channels. The 'in-house' productions have consisted largely of phone-ins, talk shows (Batrawi, 2001), and local news bulletins. International news is often copied over from the Arab satellite stations (Reuter & Seebold, p. 124), which are also better placed to cover national Palestinian news.
Private television stations have, nonetheless, succeeded in producing popular programs including Bethlehem TV's simultaneous translation of news programs from Israeli television – by the prolific Palestinian journalist, Nasser Laham – and panel discussions with very capable presenters. International funding recently enabled Bethlehem TV to produce high quality educational dramas, including some aimed at encouraging participation in the 2006 elections, and provide live coverage of the Palestinian Legislative Council debates.
RADIO, INTERNET AND MOBILE PHONES The PNA's radio, Voice of Palestine, has still not recovered from the 2002 Israeli bombardment. It has few computers and telephones, lacks enough office space, chairs, or even a tea and coffee service or proper toilet facilities. Staff members take on additional jobs outside the station to supplement their income – which is around $550 per month for a director – or join the private or satellite TV stations where the pay is much higher.
The Voice of Palestine's audience has dropped in recent years, with young people, who make up the majority of the Palestinian population, tuning into the private radio stations (Al Hal, No. 3, 2 April 2005, p. 6). Nearly three-quarters of these stations broadcast mostly music, with the rest of the airtime given to news and programs on agriculture, health, medicine, women, children, prisoners in Israeli jails, religion, history, and sports. (Shuwaikh, 2006, pp. 7-8).
Young Palestinians are increasingly turning to the internet, which has also become the preferred means of communications for the media and other organizations, including political parties (Reuter & Seebold, 2001, 130-135). Many newspapers have internet sites, as do the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa; the pro-Hamas Palestinian Information Center; and two independent agencies: Palestine News Network (PNN), and Ma'an, or Together. The total number of users in the Palestinian Territories is estimated at 160,000 – one-twentieth of those in Israel (3.2 million).
Mobile phones are another fast growing means of mass communication in Palestine, with an estimated one-million telephones. While adult Palestinians use their mobile phones mostly for conversation, young people can be heavy users of text and picture transmission facilities. Mobile phones have also been used to provide material for radio, such as 10 weekly programs – including live discussions – on 6 private radio stations, broadcast by a Palestinian prisoner held in Israel (Al Hal, No. 10, 1 March 2006, p. 10).
THE STAFF The number of Palestinian journalists is estimated at 1,500 (Laham, 2006), 100 times higher than in 1980. The numbers rose rapidly during the two intifidas – 1987-93 and 2000-05 – when the large numbers of international journalists going to the region found it difficult to reach all parts of the Occupied Territories and had to employ Palestinians as fixers, assistants and reporters. (Reuter & Seebold, 2001, p. 77-80). An important feature of this process was the entry into journalism of university-educated Palestinian women who knew foreign languages and could accompany the foreign journalists into Palestinian homes. Some of these women later joined major news organizaions such as CNN an Al-Jazeera. But women's rise in journalism in general has been limited, with most women engaged in administrative work, rather than in reporting or editing, and very few holding managerial posts (Somiry-Batrawi, Benaz, 2004, pp. 110-114).
OBSTACLES A survey of Palestinian journalists in 2005 placed PNA officials at the bottom of a list of nine factors that they believed limited their freedom. At the top of the list was Israeli occupation. The other obstacles included clans and extended families; editors; security organs; political parties; Jordanian authorities; friends and acquaintances; and unidentified gunmen (Al Hal, No. 4, 3 May 2005, p. 3). Some journalists also say their profession suffers because of the weakness of the Union of Palestinian Journalists (Al Hal, No. 1, 1 February 2005, p. 11). The Union, founded in 1975, had about 600 members by the late 1990s. It is officially funded, leading to criticisms that it has been “too soft” on the Palestinian National Authority (Reuter & Seebold, 2001, pp. 74-75).
Most Palestinian broadcasters rely on advertising as their primary source of income, which can be very small. Since most stations carry live sports programs taken from pay TV stations without paying any copyright fees, the price of advertisements can fall below 1 dollar per minute (Kuttab, 2006a). The limited advertising income and other revenues such as donor funds have to be shared by the large number of broadcasters, leading to under-funding, with potentially serious consequences, such as media owners trying to serve rich patrons, rather than the public, with low-cost, low-quality programming (Mendel, & Khashan, 2006). Low pay, of between $500 and $700 a month for most Palestinian local journalists (Laham, 2006), can lead some to “produce ‘news’ stories for cash” (Mendel, & Khashan, 2006), or to “migrate” to the much better paying foreign satellite TV stations, news agencies and newspapers (Al Shayeb, 2005b).
THE LAW The Palestinian press has been operating under the Press and Publications Law which was enacted in 1995 by President Arafat and which has been criticized as imposing “unjustifiable restrictions”. The critics say the law also contradicts the Palestinian Basic Law, amended in 2003, which guarantees freedom of expression in line with international standards and constitutional practices in democratic states. However, the Basic Law itself is also criticized for not stipulating any punishments for those who violate it.
A team of jurists commissioned by the Fatah-led Palestinian government in 2005 has produced a draft law for independent bodies to oversee the media with guarantees for “freedom of expression, respect for pluralism and cultural diversity, freedom to obtain the news irrespective of the source, and the right to distribute, publish and transmit programmes without restriction, while respecting others and reaffirming the principles of justice, equality, human rights and the sovereignty of the law.” The draft contains an “unprecedented” article stipulating that “the law should remain in force even in a state of emergency, with no possibility of derogating from it” (Mendel, & Khashan, 2006).
The Hamas-led government that was elected in January 2006 has not had much chance of dealing systematically with any aspect of the administration of the Palestinian Territories, including the media. It has, however, promised to guarantee freedom of the press, protect the journalists and facilitate the provision of information by the authorities (Ma’an, 3 April 2006). The Minister of Information, Dr Yousef Rizqah, has also strongly criticized the official Palestinian media institutions.
Addressing the Palestinian Legislative Council at the end of May, Dr Rizqah said only about 15% of the Ministry's staff had studied media or public relations; about 40% of them had only high school diplomas or lower qualifications. He described the Ministry's structure as an “inverted Pyramid”, with nearly 80% of the staff holding managerial titles, and gave a very bleak picture of its resources. In Gaza, he said, the Ministry had 16 computers to be shared by 71 members of staff, none of whom had had any computer training. The Manager of the IT Department had said he knew nothing about the internet and was barely able to use his email. The staff at the Ministry's International Relations Department had been unable to translate a letter addressed to the Red Cross, which had to be translated by a visitor to the Ministry.
The Minister also spoke of a “campaign of incitement, intrigue and attacks” by the official media against the government. This, the Minister said, had included the attribution of false statements to the ministers; the use of provocative terms such as “black militia and the Interior Ministry's shock troops”; failing to cover a pro-government fund raising event in Ramallah and a meeting of Islamic scholars in the Qatari capital, Doha, which had supported the Palestinian government and people. Both events, said the Minister, had been covered live by Al Jazeera TV (Ma’an, 31 May 2006).
AL JAZEERA UNDER FIRE While such praise might have served Al-Jazeera in the past, with tension rising between the Hamas and Fatah movements, the station became an important part of the dispute. By the middle of May, Al-Jazeera was being openly accused by some Palestinians of being biased towards Hamas and “raising Islamist slogans” (Ma'an, 14 May 2006). Within a few days of the accusations being voiced, several Al Jazeera vehicles, including one used for live coverage, were set on fire in the station's car park in the center of Ramllah (Ma’an, 20 May 2006). The cause of the fire was not established.
On the other hand, two days later in Gaza City, Hamas officials at the Interior Ministry attacked a cameraman from Al Jazeera and another one from the French News Agency who were covering an armed parade by Fatah supporters in front of the Palestinian Legislative Council (Ma’an, 24 May 2006). Early in June, an office of the official Palestine TV in the Gaza Strip was stormed by armed Hamas supporters who accused the station of bias towards Fatah. Hamas denied any responsibility for the attack (BBC News, 5 June 2006).
Al Jazeera's problems were later compounded by the Palestinian Arabic language media quoting the Israeli daily Ma'ariv as saying that the Israeli army had benefited from live coverage, by Al Jazeera and other TV satellite TV channels, to pinpoint and attack armed Palestinians who had fought the Israeli troops in Ramallah (Ma’an, 26 May 2006). Al Jazeera's bureau chief, Walid al-Omari, strongly attacked the Arabic language media, saying they had deleted the reference to other “Arab satellite channels, the internet pages and the Palestinian TV networks” in their translation of the Ma'ariv article.
He said this and other attacks on Al Jazeera had been motivated by “malicious politicians and jealous media practitioners.” Mr Omari also said that if the Palestinians were to believe the claim that Arabic satellite TV image had been used by the Israelis, the same could also be said about high rise buildings from which Israeli snipers had attacked the Palestinians. In that case, he argued, Palestinians should destroy all the buildings that they had “built, stop all forms of communication and, perhaps, commit mass suicide” to make sure they would not be used by the Israeli forces against the Palestinians (Ma’an, 26 May 2006).
THE “SEA OF SLOGANS” Independent Palestinian media too have come under criticism by both Hamas and Fatah. Recent examples include the Prime Minister, Ismael Haniyeh, personally calling the Palestine News Service, PNN, to find out why the report of a news conference of his had said that “the usually cheerful” Mr Haniyeh had not smiled throughout the press conference. Hamas has also officially complained to PNN, accusing it of misreporting some of the new decisions by the Palestinian Authority. Ma'an News Agency too has been the subject of complaints by both Fatah and Hamas activists and officials (Kuttab, 2006a). There have been a variety of other attacks and intimidation, including threats from anonymous sources against secular journalists, especially cartoonists (Kuttab, 2006b).
There has also been public criticism of the local media, especially for their coverage before the elections, when the voters were inundated in a “sea of slogans” raised by the factions about “fighting corruption, the right to resist, ending the occupation, liberating the prisoners [held in Israeli jails], destroying the Wall, fighting poverty and unemployment, the hand that will build and the one that will resist, the one that fired the first bullet and the one that threw the first stone.” After the elections, the voters had been surprised to learn of the differences between Fatah and Hamas on such crucial issues as “the recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization as the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people; principle of two states that had been endorsed by the Palestine National Council in 1988 in Algeria; recognition of international law as the basis of a just resolution of the Palestinian case; and their true positions with respect to the agreements signed by the Palestinians and the Israelis.” (Al Hal, No. 11, 1 April 2006).
Palestinian and other Arab TV channels have also been criticized for their “idolization of the military people and the martyrs and creating a stereotype that all Palestinians as super-humans” (Kuttab, 2006b), and fortheir graphic coverage of violence. For several years the news has included huge numbers of pictures of dead and mutilated bodies. Critics have described such images as a “poisoned dish” and their presentation as “a crime against society, especially children.” Satellite TV reporters themselves have complained that their constant exposure to “bullets, blood and mutilated bodies” has left them psychologically traumatized (Al Hal, No. 13, 1 June 2006, p. 11).
PROMISES OF HOPE While the rising criticisms of and attacks against the local Palestinian media may to some extent have been caused by the media’s deficiencies, they also demonstrate the rising influence of the local media, a trend that is likely to continue. While the international media, especially the Arab satellite TV, will continue to be better placed to cover Palestinian issues that have to do with Israel and the international community, or the major policy disputes between Hamas and Fatah, in the absence of such developments, the Palestinian people would need their own domestic media to find out the details of the legislative, judiciary and executive procedures (Kuttab 2006a). With these three presumed pillars of the state far from functioning effectively at present, a Palestinian journalist has suggested that they could perhaps be rebuilt by the Palestinian “Fourth Estate” (Thawabetah, 2006).
To reach this objective, the Palestinian media would need much better resources. Technical facilities can be acquired from the market place relatively easily. What the Palestinian media need more urgently are more qualified human resources, especially better-trained reporters, writers, photo-journalists and, crucially, editors, who can ensure that their audiences receive an accurate, fair, balanced picture of Palestinian life, within its regional and global contexts. The development of human resources is a much longer process and can only be accomplished with substantial and sustained international support.
Israel itself, with a sophisticated media, can have an important role to play. The creation of the Palestinian National Authority was the result of negotiations that replaced the Palestinian guerrilla struggle of the 1970s and 1980s. If the current wave of violence between the Israelis and Palestinians is to stop there has to much more communication between the two sides. At present, there is very little direct contact between Israeli and Palestinian media professionals. One joint activity has been the electronic journal Bitterlemons.
Another Palestinian-Israeli media venture, the radio station All for Peace, paints an accurate picture of the sad current state of affairs. A large proportion of the Israelis and the Palestinians, says the radio's mission statement, do “not know the other side at all, except for what they learn through the local media, which do not always paint a picture truly reflecting the other side. In fact, the media generally emphasize only the negative aspects.” Much more effort is needed, the statement goes on to say, with international support, to bring about a deeper and closer understanding of the Palestinian and Israeli media professionals so that they can show “the true face of each side”, “assist in grappling with [obstacles], which have been built up over the years of the conflict”, and “assist in opening hearts” and creating the hope of “better days to come.” The loss of such hope, concludes the statement, would be “the greatest threat to both peoples.”
Hossein Shahidi, American University of Beirut.
Reuter, Christoph & Seebold, Irmtraud. (2001). Al-I'lam wa Horriyat al-Ra'y fi Falastin (The Media and Freedom of Expression in Palestine), translated from German into Arabic by Aref Hijjawi, Bir Zeit University Media Institute.
Shuwaikh, Jihad. (2006). Al-Idha'at al-Khassah fi-Dhaffah wa-l-Qita': Al-Najahat wa-Taqsirat, wa Imkanat al-Mostaqbal – Dirassah Estekshafieh (Private Radio Stations: Successes, Shortcomings, and Prospects – An Exploratory Study), Bir-Zeit University Media Institute.
Thawabetah, Nibal. (2006). “Media Freedom in Palestine”, lecture at the Conference on Media Freedom organized by the German Cultural Center, Gotha, Ramallah.
Somiry-Batrawi, Benaz (2004). “Echoes: Gender and Media Challenges in Palestine.” In Sakr, Naomi, Women and Media in the Middle East: Power Through Self-Expression, London, I.B. Tauris, pp. 109-119.