Palestine's media fail to inform voters


THE enthusiastic endorsement of the Palestinian elections by the west as fair and democratic ignored the role of Palestine's media The media were under constant pressure from the authorities and failed to do their job of informing the voters.

Last August, Al Quds, the leading Palestinian newspaper, published a statement from the Islamic group, Hamas. Dr Marwan AbuZalaf, the editor, received a phone call from the Palestinian Authority, ordering him to close. Four "thugs" were sent to his premises to ensure he obeyed.

If he did not, he says, then his vans would have been hijacked and his staff intimated.

He was allowed to reopen after only one day. His night editor was not so lucky. Maher Alami was on duty on Christmas night. He placed a story concerning Yasser Arafat on page eight, rather than page one.

Mr Alami was summoned to Jericho for questioning and detained by the Preventive Security Service of the Palestinian Authority. He was held for five days. Al Quds has yet to publish anything about Mr Alami's detention. Dr Abu Zalaf said it would not have helped. Most of the other newspapers, radio and television also ignored the story.

Mr Arafat personally ordered his release. He came to see the veteran journalist and said that if this happened again, just dump some of the page one advertising, Arafat would pay.

Throughout the election the Palestinian media failed to cover it in a proper journalistic manner. The Palestinian Broadcasting Company, for instance, gave all candidates two minutes to say what they wanted. Some journalists said this constituted fair and objective journalism.

In the little villages of the West Bank candidates met the people at meetings. Candidates were questioned by old men in keffiyahs. They were grilled as they drank small Arabic coffees. There was no fear, no intimidation. It was direct democracy, and the media had little or no role in it.

A poll carried out by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre showed that 20.4 per cent of Palestinians had no opinion when asked which local newspaper they trusted to give information about the election and 15 per cent were not satisfied with the coverage.

In July 1994 Al Nahar was clod, by the Palestinian Authority from July 28th to September 1st. AlNahar was a pro Jordanian news paper. It reopened not just with a new editorial line, but even with a new masthead, showing the Dome on the Rock, the most potent symbol for Palestinian Muslims. The message was clear. The new authorities were not going to allow dissent.

Throughout the election Palestinian newspapers were filled with paid advertisements for candidates. For most those advertisements with a few glowing words were all the information they received from the media.

It is estimated that there are 400 journalists in Palestine. There are four daily newspapers and a host of weekly newspapers.

However, editors and journalists will say privately that there are probably only about 20 journalists with the necessary skills to be able to report and produce newspapers, radio and television news with fairness and balance. Most have found it difficult to move from being supporters of the struggle for liberation to having an equal commitment to democracy and the electorate.

Journalists have little freedom of movement. Most were unable to travel between Gaza and the West Bank during the election. Most believed they would not be allowed publish anything critical of Fatah and Yasser Arafat. Most, however, did not try.

Meanwhile, in Ramallah, the Palestinian human rights organisation, Al Haq, criticised the media. Hussein Daifallah says that after 28 years of Israeli censorship Palestinian journalists are used to guidelines. Without official censorship they have imposed self censorship. Even with serious press restrictions in the press law, Mr Daifallah blames the media itself. They should expose and do not. It was important for Palestinian democracy that the media was involved, acting as a watchdog during this first election. It did not do this.