Palestinian journalists have been badly hit by the political instability in the Territories, especially in the Gaza Strip. Permanently-based foreign correspondents fled the Strip after British journalist Alan Johnston was kidnapped in March and the June takeover of Gaza by Hamas forced out most employees of media outlets close to the rival Palestinian Authority government.
Journalists suffered considerably in 2007 from the power struggle between Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas, which won the 2006 parliamentary elections. The great political tension obstructed the work of journalists who tried to avoid excessively taking sides. An upsurge in violence during the year also affected the media and Suleyman al-Aashi and Mohammed Mattar Abdu, of the pro-Hamas daily Filistin, were murdered as they drove to work in Gaza in May.
The Hamas coup in the Gaza Strip in June not only cut the Palestinian Territories in two but also divided their media. “We can’t work impartially any more,” a journalist with the news agency Ma’an told Reporters Without Borders. “Whatever we write, it’s going to offend one side or the other. For example, referring to the ‘dismissed’ government in Gaza of prime minister Ismael Haniyeh is considered siding with the Palestinian Authority.”
Rivalry between the two ruling parties is also displayed in the media. After the Hamas victory at the polls in 2006 and just before Haniyeh was installed, government-owned media were put under the control of President Abbas when traditionally they are controlled by the prime minister. But Hamas has its own media outlets which became more important in 2007, especially satellite TV station Al-Aqsa, set up by Hamas in 2005. The station was controversial in 2007 for its children’s programme Pioneers of Tomorrow, which preaches "martyrdom" by young Palestinians.
Hostility to journalists in the Gaza Strip
The 750 people who worked at the national Palestine Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) TV station in Gaza could not do their jobs after Hamas barred them from the building as soon as it seized power on 14 June. A PBC transmitter was also destroyed. A few days later, dozens of Hamas’ Ezzedin al-Qassam Brigades militia burst into PBC studios and stopped the station broadcasting. The few journalists remaining had to flee and equipment and archives were destroyed. Since then, the station has only broadcast from its West Bank studios. The attack was a sombre moment for Gaza’s state media journalists and those in the Strip’s privately-owned media openly supporting Fatah. Many left for the West Bank.
President Abbas formed a new government based in Ramallah and journalists who stayed in Gaza to cover Hamas activities were punished there with a growing number of restrictions. In August, the Islamist leaders said they would apply a 1995 law providing for imprisonment for publication of any news liable to “endanger national unity or incite crime, hatred, division or religious disputes.” This was to discourage journalists from reporting “negative” news about the Hamas police and security forces, rather than to actually jail them, though Hamas has never bothered about legal niceties. Hamas also shut down the Gaza branch of the journalists’ union after it criticised the Hamas crackdown on the media. Journalists were also ordered to get new Hamas-stamped press cards and dozens of journalists were arrested in Gaza because of this rule.
Journalists had a better time of it on the West Bank but government security officials there roughed up some. Official distrust of the media was just as high as in Gaza and journalists sometimes censored themselves. Pro-Hamas journalists had trouble working on the West Bank. Two reporters of the pro-Hamas TV station Al-Aqsa were arrested and held for three weeks in Hebron in November 2007. About 40 journalists were arrested throughout the Palestinian Territories between June and the end of the year. Hamas’ Executive Force paramilitaries in Gaza and Palestinian Authority forces on the West Bank were given a free hand to stop the media reporting opposition activities and to warn dissident journalists.
Foreign journalists involved in the Gaza turmoil
No foreign reporters are now based in the Gaza Strip, as a result of the 12 March 2007 kidnapping of BBC reporter Alan Johnston and his nearly four-month imprisonment by one of the Strip’s most powerful factions. Foreign media have switched their offices to the West Bank and use Palestinian journalists to report from Gaza. Johnston was kidnapped by the Islamist Army, run by the Dogmush family, and his captors threatened his life many times. The episode showed the Palestinian authorities were powerless in the Strip and also could not unite the various security forces.
The large-scale militarisation of Palestinian society has put journalists in growing danger, which will continue as long as the Territories are run by family-based militias with no respect for the rule of law. Two foreign journalists were kidnapped in the Gaza Strip in 2007, down from six the previous year. Jaime Razuri, a Peruvian photographer for the French news agency Agence France-Presse, was held for a week in January by kidnappers known to the authorities but not announced to the public.