Mutual censorship in the West Bank and Gaza

GAZA CITY (IPS) - So much is missing as you walk down the street along the shops of Gaza. Food and medicines kept out by the blockade enforced by Israel; but also newspapers once a part of the street landscape.

Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda and Al-Ayyam, two newspapers loyal to Fatah, are not around any more. And for once, you couldn’t blame the Israelis for censorship.

Of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Gaza is ruled by elected Hamas government, and the West Bank by Fatah. Fighting between the two groups has led to a silencing of voices on both sides.

Hamas-affiliated police forces banned three newspapers in Gaza on 28 July of this year; of them Al-Quds has now been allowed back in. Earlier in June the West Bank authorities banned Falsteen and Al-Risalah, two newspapers affiliated with Hamas.

“We have given them some guidelines to report more professionally, but they have refused to deal with us,” Hamas spokesman Taher al-Nounno told IPS, speaking of the Fatah publications. “The newspapers have been publishing lies and instigating unrest.”

In the West Bank, Nimir Hamad, political advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said “Al-Rasalah and Falasteen are both propagandist papers calling for strife, they are publishing extremist and fundamentalist thinking.”

Journalists and camera crews working for a Hamas-owned television station in the West Bank were arrested. So were journalists working for Fatah-supporting media in Gaza. Both sides have closed radio stations, and both have confiscated media equipment.

The international watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) has said that at least nine media outlets have ceased operating in Gaza since July 2007, when Hamas took control of Gaza after a landslide win in elections in January 2006. Of these outlets, three were state-owned, and six privately owned.

The Basic Law of the Palestine Authority (PA) declares that every person has the right to freedom of thought and expression. But in 1995 the PA passed a law against criticism of the Palestinian Authority or its president. That law is now being implemented in the attacks on newspaper offices and journalists.

The law does not apply to foreign media. But Human Rights Watch (HRW) has noted that an increasing number of independent journalists are opting out of the region because the risks are too many.

And far too often now, nobody is around to report the many abuses that take place. “Over the past 12 months, Palestinians in both places (the West Bank and Gaza) have suffered serious abuses at the hands of their own security forces, in addition to persistent abuses by the occupying power, Israel,” HRW has stated.

The HRW report says that since taking control of Gaza last year, Hamas has tortured detainees, carried out arbitrary arrests of political opponents, and clamped down on freedom of expression and assembly. And that Fatah has done exactly the same.

Israel brought censorship to this Promised Land long back. In 1971 then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir wiped the name of Palestine off all maps produced in Israel. Israeli occupation forces declared all Palestinian symbols like flags and posters illegal.

During the first intifada (1987-1992), the name given to the Palestinian uprising, and again in the second (since September 2000), Israeli authorities have closely censored Palestinian publications, ordering removal of “security” related information.

Israeli authorities have arrested media personnel, beaten them up and denied them press cards. RSF says Israeli soldiers have shot at least nine Palestinian journalists.

But beyond Israel and the Palestinian factions, the blame for censorship lies with those champions of freedom, the European Union and the United States, HRW says. That arises from the funding and the political protection they have given to security forces, it says.

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