Report on the Palestinian Authority by the international Committee to Protect
Journalists, as of December 31, 1998
Five years after Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian National Authority (PNA)
assumed control of areas of the West Bank and Gaza, fear and
self-censorship continue to hamper the Palestinian press. The PNA’s
authoritarian-style tactics against independent-minded journalists have
forced most to steer clear of sensitive topics such as corruption,
mismanagement, or any news that would cast Arafat or his authority in a
To some journalists, the daily press functions more as a mouthpiece for the
PNA than as an independent institution. Two of the three private
Palestinian dailies have direct financial or political links to the PNA.
The third–the privately-owned, Jerusalem-based Al-Quds–stays well
within the boundaries of what Arafat’s coterie considers acceptable journalism.
“They censor about 40 percent of my articles concerning
Palestinian policies, corruption, and mismanagement,” said one columnist.
“I don’t send them sensitive stories because I know what they will and
will not publish.”
Although the weekly newspapers Al-Istiqlal and Al-Risala–publications linked to
the militant organization Islamic Jihad and the Khalas party (made up of former
Hamas members), respectively–were allowed to resume publishing this year
after lengthy closures, both continued to face pressure in the form of arrests of
journalists or threats of arrest.
For example, one of the editors of Al-Risala was on the run for several
weeks after he learned that authorities were trying to arrest him for his
criticisms of Arafat’s leadership.
The nascent private broadcast media were targets of repeated harassment and
censorship. In an attempt to silence coverage of pro-Iraqi sentiment during
the February standoff between United Nations weapons inspectors and Saddam
Hussein, the Ministry of Information banned all broadcasting of opinion and
analysis about the crisis. Soon afterward, more than 100 police surrounded
the offices of the Bethlehem-based Al-Roa’ TV and forced the station to
suspend broadcasting after it had aired news about pro-Iraqi demonstrations
in the West Bank and other programming about the standoff. The station
remained closed without official explanation for five months.
In a scene reminiscent of the February crackdown, police in December
ordered six private television and radio stations in the West Bank cities of
Ramallah and Bethlehem to suspend broadcasting until further notice. The move
was widely seen as an attempt by authorities to silence news coverage
pertaining to the U.S.-led military attack on Iraq, specifically coverage
of anti-U.S. sentiment and expressions of sympathy with Iraq from
Police and security forces continued to operate outside the law,
arbitrarily intimidating and arresting reporters. One of the year’s most
disturbing incidents occurred in May when security forces detained Reuters
free-lance journalist Abbas Moumani, holding him incommunicado for nine days.
Following the October signing of the Wye River peace accord between the PNA
and Israel, Palestinian authorities moved to muzzle criticism of the deal.
The day after the signing, 10 journalists were detained while attempting to
interview Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a Hamas leader, about the Wye agreement.
Palestinian authorities subsequently ordered that foreign journalists
would have to obtain official permission before entering areas under PNA
control, and that Palestinian journalists would need approval before covering
political or security issues. At year’s end, it was unclear how rigorously
authorities intended to implement these restrictions.
Journalists and human rights activists expressed further dismay over the
PNA’s November promulgation of an anti-incitement decree, which fulfilled a
requirement of the Wye agreement.
The decree contained a host of vague proscriptions such as “incitement
to racist discrimination,” “offending religious sensitivities,” and “incitement to
… breaching the agreements that have been signed with brotherly and foreign
Journalists said that the decree leaves authorities considerable room to
punish future criticism of the peace process or other policies.