Hamas-Fatah: Palestine's media war

The way the two rival Palestinian factions are using the media to slam each other, has greatly damaged independent journalism development in the Palestinian territories, argues Karim Lebhour.
By Karim Lebhour

When the Islamist party Hamas took over the Gaza Strip last June, the fighting was not restricted to the ground. A media war was raging too. Each side used its affiliated media to slam the other, inciting hatred.

Fatah’s radio stations, as well as the state-owned Public Broadcasting Corporation (TV) and the Voice of Palestine radio station would frequently refer to “Hamas murderers” or even, sometimes, “shiia militias”, while pro-Hamas stations slammed the “Fatah traitors and collaborators”, calling for the end to “the era of corruption”.

I happened to spend time in the pro-Fatah radio station Sawt Al Shabab on the last day of the fighting. While the main security headquarters were on the verge of falling into Hamas’ hands, the news presenter continued to tell his audience that Hamas was lying and that Fatah forces were holding well.

Four months later, the media situation in the Palestinian Territories has not much improved. Broadcast media affiliated to Fatah have stopped operating in Gaza, while the Al Aqsa TV studio (owned by Hamas) in Ramallah has been shut down. Journalists are exposed to threats on both sides, in Gaza, as well as in the West Bank, controlled by the Palestinian Authority. This has only eroded news diversity and the confidence Palestinians might have in their own media.

A Gazan lawyer recently told me that he could only rely on foreign media to know what was happening on his doorstep. “When you turn on Palestinian TV you see that everyone is being killed or kidnapped by Hamas. And the opposite is true on Al Aqsa TV with Fatah,” he said. The problem is that we don’t have professional journalists. They are all politically affiliated. Half of them are with Fatah and the other half with Hamas.”

Although significant progress has been made in freedom of expression in the past years, Palestinian media are still affected by the legacy of self-censorship that developed as a result of the authority’s censorship, enforced throughout the Oslo period. In the newsroom of the main private radio station in Ramallah, Radio Ajyal, several notices are posted on the wall such as “Don’t forget Palestine” or “A curse on those who threaten our national unity”. Such attitudes, considered to be patriotic in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, make it even more difficult to build an independent media system which can carry out its role as a watchdog for democracy.

Palestinian media capacity is also hindered by financial hardships. The truth is that there are plenty of professional Palestinian journalists, but in a region that attracts so much media attention, most of them have found more secure and better rewarded jobs with foreign media companies. Palestinian media simply cannot compete with offers made by Al Jazeera, Al Arabya or even a job as an assistant producer for a Western network. For over a year, due to the international boycott of the Hamas government, salaries in the state-owned media were simply not paid. On the other hand, the collapsing economy in the Palestinian Territories and the tiny advertising market, left virtually no financial resources at all for the privately owned media, with the result that station managers cannot offer much to their staff.

I could not agree more with Internews Europe’s director John West when he wrote in his last editorial ’’Funders, thinking of Investing in PSB? Don’t!’’ that lot of money has been wasted funding public service broadcasting. If we are to improve media quality and diversity in Palestinian Territories, I would strongly advise the development of a partnership with universities, rather than the commercial or public media sectors. A “model radio” for instance could be created with a few qualified professionals, modern equipment and the good will of many students anxious to start a career in the media field, using only limited resources.

Qualified and independent Palestinian journalists are greatly needed, while Israelis and Palestinians are on the verge of starting new peace talks during the Annapolis conference. Israelis often complain that Palestinian leaders only make concessions behind closed doors and do not present them for public debate. It is about time that Palestinian media efficiently question their leaders on the issues that are going to determine the future of the region.

Karim Lebhour is a journalist for Radio France International (RFI) and the former resident radio advisor in the Palestinian Territories for Internews Europe’s project “Radio networking for democracy”. This article was first published on Internews Europe.