Khaled Abu Toameh, an Israeli Arab, is the West Bank and Gaza correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and U.S. News and World Report. He previously served as a senior writer for the Jerusalem Report, and a correspondent for Al-Fajr. He has produced several documentaries on the Palestinians for the BBC and many other networks, including ones that exposed the connection between Arafat and payments to the armed wing of Fatah and the financial corruption within the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Abu Toameh received his BA in English Literature from the Hebrew University and currently lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three children. He addressed the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia on April 27, 2004.
As an Arab journalist working among Palestinians, I am often asked if I feel threatened while I work. I am indeed frequently placed in life-threatening situations, yet the threats I experience do not come from the Israeli occupation, but from Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA). At least 12 Palestinian journalists have been attacked by masked men in the past four months in what appears to be an organized campaign to intimidate the media. Only days ago, a photographer working for Agence France-Presse had his arms broken by a masked man in Ramallah. Agence France-Presse did not do anything about this attack, but a great outcry is raised when Israeli soldiers allegedly harass journalists in the territories.
The Lack of Independence in the Palestinian Media
Twenty years ago, while studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I worked for the PLO's newspaper Al Fajr (The Dawn). Al Fajr was more than a paper; it was a PLO institution. At the paper we basically received and carried out orders from Arafat's office in Tunisia. Although I eventually became an editor there, I did not mention my position at Al Fajr on my resume for years because I did not consider the work that went on there to be real journalism. Now, after being censured for my outspokenly critical views of the Palestinian media, I consider my time at Al Fajr testament to my knowledge of the lack of journalistic freedom at the PLO newspaper.
I continue to witness what is happening to the Palestinian media under Arafat. Many of my Palestinian colleagues actually envy me for writing for an Israeli paper. Working for the PLO, I was not able to write a word of my own free will. Yet in two years at the Jerusalem Post my editors have never told me what to write. I can function as a journalist at the Jerusalem Post in a way that many Palestinians have tried to function under Arafat, but have failed.
Arafat's Attack on Free Speech
When Arafat returned to the West Bank and Gaza from his exile, his security forces ignored pursuing terrorists and instead arrested independent journalists not loyal enough to the PLO. Over 38 journalists were forced out of their jobs or the country. This was not given much attention by the foreign media because at the time Arafat was allowed to do whatever he wanted in the name of Oslo. Although they did not cover the story heavily, I was not alone in pointing out to foreign journalists that the first thing Arafat did when PLO returned to the territories was to restrict freedom of speech.
Arafat has complete control over the Palestinian media to this day. Almost all Palestinian newspapers are financed by the PLO, and serve as a mouthpiece for the organization, which is basically Arafat's office. Some days the headlines for the three major Palestinians papers are identical. The lack of freedom at these papers is a big disappointment for Palestinian journalists; they were freer to write what they wanted under Israeli occupation before the PLO returned from exile.
Arafat's suppression of free speech is another example of an Arab leader not allowing the people to speak out. In this way Arafat is no different from other Arab dictators, who see the role of the media as subservient to – and a mouthpiece for – their regimes. In the Arab world, if you are an independent journalist or you criticize the regime, then you are branded a traitor – and that kind of suppression of dissent is how dictatorial Arab regimes survive.
Palestinian Media and their Impact on Foreign Media
The lack of free speech in the territories should not be dismissed as an internal Palestinian problem. When Palestinian journalists are intimidated, it affects foreign journalists, who depend on Palestinians to be their guides and translators in the territories. When foreign journalists interview Palestinians, many translators often mistranslate or even reprimand Palestinian interviewees critical of the Palestinian Authority, and foreign journalists' ability to accurately gather facts is thus hampered.
Another problem with the Palestinian media is the sad fact that some Palestinian journalists see themselves as foot soldiers serving the revolution. These so-called journalists are often politically affiliated with one group or another. Under the PA, you basically cannot be a journalist if you are not a member of Fatah or the security forces. All the credible independent journalists have been fired by the three major Palestinian newspapers, and there are many professional Palestinian journalists, but they have been forced to seek work with the Arab and foreign media.
There are some in the foreign media who knowingly hire consultants or journalists who are really political activists, and rely heavily on them for their reporting. These "consultants" include former security prisoners and political activists who are hired by major media organizations, including American ones, who are often aware of these so-called journalists' problematic backgrounds. Despite the bias of their consultants, which inevitably affects their reporting, the media organizations keep quiet about the consultants' backgrounds. It is hard to say if this acquiescence by foreign media organizations is due to intimidation or to the need to maintain a good relationship with the PA, but it seriously affects the ability of journalists in the region to report the facts on the ground to the world.
People in the rest of the world therefore do not get an accurate picture of what happens in the region, and there are two parties to blame for this journalistic failure. Partly to blame are foreign journalists who allow themselves to be misled by some of their Palestinian consultants. The bulk of the blame, however, rests with the PA, whose tyrannical approach and control of the media creates an atmosphere of intimidation and fear among Palestinian journalists.
Summary account by Robert Blum, research assistant at the Middle East Forum