AS AESCHYLUS observed nearly 2,500 years ago, “In war, truth is the first casualty.”
This inevitably places freedom in jeopardy, for when truth is confined to the round file, censored and ultimately eliminated, fear begins to prevail over reason. Convinced that it is the way to safety—and with no evident alternative—people begin to take the path of least resistance. Yet safety is subjective, and heavily dependent on a narrative provided and controlled by those in power. Public ignorance enables the consolidation of power, and those ruled become mere puppets. As rulers seek to silence, it is the task of journalists to expose. When the former prevail, it is the people who lose.
Stroll down the streets of Gaza today and something becomes evident. It is not that newsstands resemble those in the U.S., where sensationalist tabloids and bubblegum for the brain have edged out the comparatively venerable daily newspapers and national publications such as Time, Newsweek and Life. No, such censorship in favor of sensationalism has yet to arrive in Gaza.
Rather, what one notices throughout Gaza today is the absence of news—even of the parasitical tabloid version. Scan our racks. The main newspapers, Al Quds, Al Hayat-Al Jadeeda and Al Ayyam—publications loyal to Fatah—are missing. Nor is this the first time newspapers have become the victims of censorship. This time, however, it is not solely, or even largely, the fault of the Israelis.
In June 2007, Ramallah’s Fatah-led government under Dr. Salam Fayyad banned the Hamas-affiliated Falsteen and Al Risalah newspapers. This past July 28, following an explosion which killed six Palestinians and injured more than 15, Hamas police forces confiscated Fatah-affiliated newspapers at the Eretz crossing and prevented them from entering Gaza. As a result of Hamas’ July 2008 ban, the Ramallah government began arresting media crews and journalists working for a Hamas-owned television station in the West Bank.
This media stand-off between Gaza’s Hamas leadership and the Fatah leadership in the West Bank has resulted in a number of journalists being arrested by both sides. Ultimately, of course, it has affected freedom of expression within Palestinian society. Moreover, the dispute continues to escalate, as each political faction attempts to control what information Palestinians may be permitted to hear or read.
In an interview, Taher Al Nounno, spokesman of Gaza’s de facto Hamas government, offered the following rationale for banning the three Fatah newspapers.
“We have given them some notes to make their report more professional, but they have refused to deal with us,” Al Nounno stated emphatically. “The three newspapers have been publishing lies and instigating [unrest]. They are a long way from professionalism in showing [both sides of the argument],” he maintained.
In a separate interview, Fatah leader Nimir Hamad, political adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, justified the decision to ban the distribution of Hamas-affiliated newspapers—despite the fact that Hamas has recently allowed Al Quds daily to be distributed in Gaza.
“Al Resalah and Falastin are both instigation and propagandist newspapers calling for strife,” Hamad asserted, “and…are publishing extremist and fundamentalist thinking.”
Not only does Fatah prevent Hamas TV crews from reporting in the West Bank, while Hamas prohibits Fatah- and Palestinian Authority-affiliated crews from working in Gaza, but both parties have jailed journalists, closed radio stations and confiscated media equipment.
An Ongoing War on Words
According to the internationally respected watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RWB), at least nine news media outlets—three of them state-owned, the rest privately owned—have ceased operating in Gaza since June 2007. The RWB also has noted numerous incidents, including assaults and abductions, constituting intimidation of journalists by Palestinian authorities in both the West Bank and Gaza in retaliation for reporting deemed unfavorable.
Unlike the United States or most Western nations, neither Israel nor Palestine has a constitution (although both operate under basic laws). As a result, the rights of freedom of expression and freedom of the press are arbitrarily bestowed rather than guaranteed by law. The closest such guarantee is found in the Palestinian Authority’s Basic Law, which states that every person has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and expression, whether orally, in writing or through other means.
In 1995, however, the Palestinian Authority instituted a press law making it a crime to criticize the Palestinian Authority or the president. Although on the books for more than a decade, until recently it was not enforced either in Gaza or the West Bank—but the escalation of attacks on press offices, arrests of journalists and the cessation of newspaper distribution within Palestine speak to its current implementation.
The language of the law applies to domestic journalists rather than foreign news bureaus, which continue to operate out of their offices in the West Bank and Gaza. Due to the threat of arrest and torture, however, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) notes that an increasing number of independent journalists are opting out of covering Palestine, seeing the risks as too great.
In a recently released report, HRW states that, “Over the past 12 months, Palestinians in both places [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.”
The report further documents that since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, it has tortured detainees, conducted arbitrary arrests of political opponents and clamped down on freedom of expression and assembly. Furthermore, the report points out, its rival Fatah is guilty of exactly the same crimes in the West Bank: the torture of journalists and sympathizers, arbitrary detention and the closing down of media organizations sympathetic to Hamas.
Israel Leads the Way
Of course, Israeli censorship has long been a part of Palestinian reality. One recalls Prime Minister Golda Meir’s 1971 edict erasing Palestine and the Green Line from all maps produced in Israel, or Israeli occupation forces ordering the removal of Palestinian political symbols—flags, posters and more. Israeli authorities censored coverage of the first and second Palestinians intifadas, meticulously reviewing Arabic publications for “security”-related material, and enforced its ban on critical reporting with arrests, beatings and the confiscation of press cards. According to Reporters Without Borders, Israeli soldiers have shot at least nine Palestinian journalists, including reporters for the Associated Press, Agence France Presse (AFP) and Al Ayyam newspaper.
According to HRW, blame for the wholesale destruction of freedom of the press and of expression in Palestine originates with political protection and funding by the United States and the European Union of Israeli and Palestinian security forces. This bias, moreover, ensures that the abuses continue. In its report, HRW calls upon the enabling nations to cease providing aid to all agencies, regardless of affiliation, implicated in serious violations of human rights and to publicly criticize abuses committed by West Bank and Gaza security forces.
Without such intercession by the international community, Israel, Hamas and Fatah will continue restricting freedom of expression, abusing journalists, closing media offices, confiscating equipment, preventing the distribution of newspapers, and assaulting journalists during demonstrations—all of which serve to prevent information from reaching those directly affected. It also renders the entire world ignorant of facts—facts which in time will lead to a peaceful resolution of the longest running conflict in the Middle East.