Inside Palestine's Media War



 
Hamas and Fatah have been squaring off politically and militarily since Hamas' election victory. But the two factions are also engaged in a protracted media battle. Menassat.com takes a look at the media war in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
 
By Fadi Abu Sada, Menassat.com Palestine Correspondent
 
Palestine, Fateh or Hamas.
The imaginary chair is labeled 'the seat of government.' The figure on the right is labeled 'Hamas' and the one on the left is 'Fatah.' ©Hani Abbas

BETHLEHEM, Dec. 11, 2007 (MENASSAT.COM) - These days, headlines for the Fatah-controlled press go something like this: "Hamas' militia continues to perpetrate its crimes," or "Hamas' insurgent gangs do x, y, z."  Whereas a newspaper opinion poll might be framed like: "What is the expected method for Hamas' fall from power?"

On the other side of the embattled Palestinian territories in the Gaza Strip is the Hamas-controlled press with their own version of events. Their headlines may appear like, "Abbas' Security Forces kidnap nine Hamas members", with newspaper polls reflecting the recent attempt at a US-brokered peace map: "Following the Annapolis conference... Are you in favor of it?"

What then is the story in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip with regards to reporting? Is there integrity and professionalism in the local news?

If you go through the Gaza-based Al-Risala newspaper - considered by observers to be Hamas's official newspaper and known as the mouthpiece of the Islamic Salvation Party, or if you read the Al-Hayat al-Jadidah newspaper, the official newspaper of the Palestinian national authority, then you will find by-lines to stories that are well outside the scope of acceptable journalistic standards.

Al-Hayat al-Jadidah

Hafez Omar al-Barghouthi has been the chief editor of Al-Hayat al-Jadidah in Palestine since its establishment 12 years ago in 1995. When MENASSAT.COM asked Al-Barghouthi about the use of terms like "insurgent" in Al-Hayat's bylines, such as in "Hamas's insurgent militia," he maintained it was indeed accurate considering what happened in Gaza last summer when Hamas won control of the Gaza Strip from security elements loyal to Fatah.

"It was an insurgency and the Hamas-affiliated militias are insurgents," Al-Barghouthi said.

The paradox is that Al-Barghouthi himself is not partisan. He made it clear that he didn't believe in the local media - calling it deceitful and unprofessional, accusing those who are managing the local media outlets of being amateurs at best.

Al Barghouti added that journalism in the West Bank and Gaza would have risen above the partisan rhetoric through its performance if only it had been professionally run. "Reporting will remain as a fabrication as long as the conflict between the two parties goes on. This type of journalism shameful for the Palestinian media." 

Al-Barghouthi also described the Palestinian media as being in a stage of "decadence" - in large part because there is not a sense of independence. Journalists are often harassed if they write anything that may offend a political party, authority figure or even from Israeli figures displeased at a critique of the ever-present Occupation, he said.

"If you belong to a certain party and you suddenly decide to be a journalist, you become one. And if you decide to be the army commander on the war front you can become one as well. The only reason why you are granted that is because you are affiliated to the party."

Al-Risala

In contrast to Hafez Omar al-Barghouthi, Wissam Ibrahim Muhammad is unabashed about the partisan nature of his paper.

Born in Libya in 1974, Ibrahim Muhammad is the chief editor of Al-Risala. He has not left the Gaza Strip in twenty years due to the occupation and the Israeli control over the Gaza borders. His newspaper, he said, focuses on the violations perpetrated by the authorities - in this case, incidents that involve Fatah actions against members of the Hamas movement.

"Such violations are carried in our newspaper's main headlines depending on the identity of the person who was aggressed. If it is a lady, a female student or a Legislative Council member, for example, we lead with it," Muhammed explained.

Historically, the newspaper has always been under the watchful eye of the Palestinian Authority and over the last ten years, until the Hamas takeover of Gaza, journalists were subject to questioning and arrests for anti-Fatah articles.

Still, Muhammed maintains that he has demonstrated professionalism as an editor since taking over the post in 2002. He says he recognized the predicament faced by ordinary citizens who were trying to follow the news more objectively, without the influence of political groups.

Muhammed said a lack of proper reporting has turned ordinary Palestinians into investigative journalists as they search for accurate information. 

"To be honest, the events and circumstances we have gone through and are still going through are exceptional and have had repercussions on all aspects of Palestinian life. People living in Gaza and the West Bank have been forced to align themselves behind political parties because they (the political parties) depended on us to be weapons that were (and are) available to them. These people supported the various factions during the events that erupted between Hamas and Fatah last summer," Wissam said.

But newspaper circulation is down.

Al-Risala newspaper which used to sell 17,000 copies, 10,000 in the West Bank and the rest in Gaza, is now selling half as much and only in the Gaza Strip because there aren't enough printing houses or paper available, and because it was prevented from printing and distributing its copies in the West Bank.

In contrast, Al-Hayat al-Jadidah, which is printed in Ramallah, is still reaching the Gaza Strip as usual.

Who to rely on for sourcing?

Najib Farraj, Agence France Press' correspondent told MENASSAT.COM that professional journalists cannot rely on either Hamas' or Fatah's reports because of their clear party bias. He accused the party-run papers of being filled with lies and heresay.

Farraj said that because local media have failed to serve the public interest, average Palestinians were turning their backs on local media - television, radio and newspapers.

One Ramallah resident told MENASSAT.COM that she was "extremely afraid" to answer any questions of media bias. Although she declined to give her name, she said she was an educated housewife who followed the news regularly.

"The problem in the Palestinian case is that the information options are limited", she said. "In other words: I have no choice but to read Fatah's and/or Hamas' newspapers and watch their satellite channel even though I can't hide my distaste about what was being shown or written." 

Accordingly, she said it is only by reading and watching both "biased media sources" at the same time that she is able to get some kind of an accurate picture of what was happening around her. Distancing herself entirely from the partisan media, she said, was impossible because there are no viable alternative sources of news.
 
"I don't follow trivialities," said Nizar al-Arja, the owner of a detergent factory from Bethlehem when describing the media situation between Fatah and Hamas.

"Each side is only promoting his party or side and the local news which is the nerve of the Palestinian citizens' life is completely absent. I am among those who are very annoyed by the acuteness of the terms used by both sides in describing certain events or figures. What happened in Palestine is a domestic issue and I am bothered by how "our dirty laundry" is being exposed to the entire world," al-Arja told MENASSAT.COM.

In the end, public opinion seems to suggest that little information can be hidden from the Palestinian citizen searching for the truth between the lines of party rhetoric. The issue is simply that the news has become like the citizens' "daily bread" in this part of the world. They will therefore seek it their own way and will undoubtedly find it.


Fadi Abu Sada is the director of the Palestine News Network.