Journalists protest lack of protection

On February 2, three armed and masked men broke into Al Quds Educational TV offices in Ramallah late at night. The two night editors, Haron Abu Arra and Aboud Bilbaisi, were beaten and held at gunpoint before the assailants turned their attentions to the equipment. By the time Arra and Bilbaisi had managed to flee and call for help, most of the station’s equipment had been destroyed and the assailants were long gone.

The incident is one in a string of attacks against media institutions and journalists recently that have rattled professionals and led some 200 journalists to stage a brief sit-in at the Palestinian Legislative Council headquarters in Gaza City on February 15 to protest at the lack of protection the feel they are being afforded by the Palestinian Authority.

“We don’t know what the reason or motive was behind the raid,” says Ayman Bardawil, director of Al Quds Educational TV. “The assailants didn’t leave a note or say anything. They merely destroyed the office and took off.”

As such, the incident is like the three others that have taken place in the last four weeks. On January 8, the Dubai-based satellite station Al Arabiya’s Gaza correspondent, Seifeddin Shahin, was beaten at gunpoint by five assailants. On February 3, staff at the Gaza weekly newspaper, Al Dar, returned after the Eid Al Adha holiday to find that their offices had been broken into and the paper’s equipment destroyed, while on February 13, Al Hayat Al Jadida’s Gaza bureau chief awoke to find that his car had been set on fire by arsonists. In none of the cases have the assailants been caught, and in all the cases the victims are unsure as to why they were targeted.

Al Dar editor-in-chief Hasan Kashef says the weekly had never received any threats or warnings from any party. He admits, however, that he feared the attack was related to articles published in his magazine that were critical of several internal Palestinian issues.

In a February 9 editorial, Kashef warned that in such an atmosphere, the Palestinian media could not be expected to carry out its work. “We had hoped that all our efforts could be focused on the release of our colleague Deeb Hourani, imprisoned in Israeli jail. However, the attack on our colleague Seifeddin Shahin has imposed itself as a priority on the Palestinian media community, which has found itself in a very difficult position. It cannot turn a blind eye to the attack on Shahin by armed assailants in broad daylight in the center of Gaza City and also continue to carry out activities and contacts for the release of Hourani.”

Kashef’s editorial points out the two main pressures Palestinian journalists face in these times. On the one hand, the Israeli occupation, with its closures and incursions, has made working conditions very difficult and dangerous, in some cases even fatal. Twelve journalists have been killed so far in the three years of the Intifada, 90 have been injured and eight are in Israeli prisons, according to the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate (PSJ).

On the other hand, there is a security crisis in Palestinian society, with no effective law enforcement in place, and competing groups vying for influence. It is these latter elements, says Bardawil, who, while they do not know exactly what they want, benefit from the lack of a cohesive social fabric in Palestinian society.

“The warning bell has sounded for the freedom of press in Palestine,” he warns. The Palestinian press, he says, has until now enjoyed much greater freedom than the press in neighboring Arab countries, but “certain parties in Palestinian society feel, it seems, that reinforcing the role of the media is a direct threat to them.”

Naim Toubasi, head of the PSJ, has strongly condemned the attacks, and says the PJS is lobbying the Authority to “take the necessary measures against the perpetrators of these attacks.” Toubasi is convinced that the reason behind the attacks is the state of chaos and the absence of the rule of law.

“We [the PSJ] believe in the necessity to implement the rule of law on everyone and for everyone. But in the absence of the rule of law, we can only work within the media body to protect ourselves and our press freedom.”

Toubasi says the PSJ has requested from the follow-up committee of the National and Islamic forces to convene a special meeting to try and reach a pact between all the forces to respect the freedom of the media for journalists and to not harm any journalist under any circumstances. Toubasi said he had also requested from members of the Legislative Council to resume their role in combating this problem.

The PA has promised to crack down. In a speech on behalf of President Arafat to the protestors in Gaza on February 15, Tayeb Abdel Rahim said the freedom of the press in Palestine was “sacred” and that journalists should be granted full immunity. Abdel Rahim promised that the orders to the security services were clear and strict and that the Authority will do its utmost in catching the perpetrators and bringing them to justice.

Bardawil, however, doesn’t see this happening. The recent spate of incidents happened in a short amount time, but even before then there were sporadic attacks. In none of the cases have the perpetrators been apprehended. The question that must be raised, says Bardawil, is why.