RAMALLAH, January 27 (JMCC) - Palestinian media’s coverage of leaked secret negotiations documents have made some journalists question the meaning of a free press in the occupied West Bank.
“The coverage defended the Palestinian Authority from the first day,” says a Palestinian journalist who works with the Associated Press. “All they covered were the reactions of the Palestinian officials.”
The local press “covered what the PA gave them,” agrees Mohammed Najib, who writes for the British security magazine, Janes. He criticizes al-Quds, and al-Hayat al-Jadida, the two main West Bank newspapers, for poor journalism. There was no effort made to investigate the leaked documents further or to gauge the public’s reaction, he says.
Radio stations interviewed Fateh and Palestinian Authority officials, but spent little time discussing the content of the papers, which were published over four days by the Qatar-based satellite channel al-Jazeera and the British newspaper, the Guardian.
A Bethlehem-based agency, Maan News, is also being criticized. “They attacked al-Jazeera in an unprofessional way,” says freelance writer Mohammed Jaradat. “There was no analysis, only incitement against the TV channel. That isn’t journalism.”
INFLUENCES & INTERESTS
Local media coverage of the “Palestine Papers,” as they have been dubbed by al-Jazeera, was influenced by the documents’ ability to hurt the Palestinian leadership, journalists say.
“There is no independent media [here]”, says the AP journalist bluntly.
Both major newspapers have links to the Palestinian Authority, while Maan receives funding from international donors that support the PA, say sources.
These connections skew the coverage, believes Najib. “The PA doesn’t see the Palestinian media as a free press.” In many cases, sensitive stories are not run. Instead journalists publish the stories in online blogs.
International media, on the other hand, has more room to maneuver. Al-Jazeera, which covers Palestinian issues extensively, has a long history of run-ins with the Palestinian leadership.
“I remember when there were billboards in the streets of Ramallah attacking al-Jazeera,” says Jadarat. “They probably offer the widest coverage of Palestinian issues, but they have always been critical of the Palestinian Authority.”
Officials responding to al-Jazeera’s reporting have accused it of trying to undermine the Palestinian Authority for political reasons. The satellite channel has defended its coverage, however, saying that it adheres to the “highest editorial standards.”
But allegations about the curtailing of press freedoms go further than political connections. Journalists tell of incidents of intimidation and arrest following the publication of articles critical of the Palestinian Authority.
Jaradat has a history of clashes with Palestinian security forces over stories on torture in Palestinian prisons and corruption allegations against the PA.
“First you receive a call,” he says, “it will be from a friend who works for the PA, or knows someone who works there. ‘Don’t to do it again, or next time I won’t be able to help’ says the person on the phone,’” Jaradat reports.
Sometimes journalists are detained, he goes on.
In recent years, the Palestinian Authority has changed its attitude towards the local press, Najib says. Now officials are more aware of the influence of the media. They try to use it as a tool to their advantage rather than as something to be suppressed. Arrests, he believes, are increasingly replaced with a “serious talk” with a security official.
Given an opportunity to respond, a spokesperson for the office of Mahmoud Abbas denies charges that the government suppresses press freedoms.
“We are a lawful state where the freedom of opinion is provided for all,” says Hasan al-Ori, legal adviser to Abbas. “Even for al-Jazeera.”
“Although public opinion is against al-Jazeera,” he adds, “our security forces have helped prevent attacks on them. No one will touch them except for in lawful terms.”