Carrying on the legacy: Palestinian journalist Naela Khalil wins Samir Kassir press freedom award

The European Commission awarded this year's Samir Kassir Award for Press Freedom to Naela Khalil, a 31-year-old Palestinian journalist from the West Bank. MENASSAT's Fadi Abu Saada caught up with her in Ramallah for an exclusive interview.
samir Kassir award
Samir Kassir Press Freedom award winner Naela Khalil stands before the image of fallen journalist, Samir Kassir. R.R.

RAMALLAH, June 19, 2008 (MENASSAT) – 2008 Samir Kassir Freedom of Press award winner Naela Khalil had the journalistic bug from an early age. But her family had different plans for her.

"I wasted a whole year studying economics in university because journalism was not a career for girls," she told MENASSAT.

Despite strong family pressure to finish her degree in economics and marry, she defied her family's wishes and decided to study journalism, a move she told MENASSAT she has never regretted.

Indeed, Khalil's award-winning story, "Palestinians pay the price of hatred – Political arrests: a settlement of accounts between Fatah and Hamas," was confirmation that people have been paying attention to her chosen career path.

It was a story that took over a month of constant pavement pounding and real investigative work to produce.

"After the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007, I realized something needed to be done," Khalil said, referring to what some experts have claimed was Hamas' attempt to preempt a U.S.-orchestrated coup against the movement after their election victory in 2006.

"I thought that civil conflict between Hamas and Fatah was unacceptable – it was a red line, and we had managed to cross it by miles."

During the wave of political arrests that followed the clashes last year, at least five Palestinians were killed in the Palestinian prisons of Gaza, while an unknown number of Palestinians were killed in the Ramallah prison for internal affairs.

While few Palestinians in the West Bank were seriously talking about this issue, Khalil told MENASSAT she was compelled to go deeper and find out the insider reasons for the civil conflict.

Judges of the Samir Kassir award acknowledged Khalil's courageous approach to getting the story – skills she no doubt learned growing up in the Blata refugee camp in the West Bank.

"In the end, I am a camp girl…"

Shortly after her birth in 1977, Khalil’s family left the village of Salma near Yafa city in what is now Israeli territory, and settled in the Blata camp in the north West Bank town of Nablus.

Naela Khalil was raised with seven brothers and four sisters who, she says, were reminded of the Israeli occupation at all times.

Two of Khalil's brothers are currently serving indefinite prison sentences in Israeli jails for their roles as fighters with the resistance.

"In the end, I am a camp girl," Khalil told MENASSAT during an interview in Ramallah.

After her university studies, Khalil moved to Ramallah to be closer to the center of Palestinian political and cultural life in the West Bank.

Being closer to the real machinations of Palestinian politics has proven fruitful for the young reporter. But that hasn't stopped her mother from worrying about her.

In fact, Khalil admits that during the writing process for her award-winning report on the Hamas-Fatah conflict, she was afraid for her safety at times.

"I almost stopped writing the story but I pushed it, saying to myself that "I want to keep writing" no matter what," she said, adding that her mother called everyday to check on her, asking Khalil to return home during the daytime and not at night.

Among the main aspects of the report that distinguished her story from other accounts of the situation was the fact that it suggested the Hamas takeover was actually a "revenge act."

Khalil suggested that, ever since its establishment in the 1990's, the Palestinian authority had made it a policy of arresting Hamas leaders, and what happened in June of 2007 was a retaliation that has since made the political differences between the two the "fertile ground" with which hatred would certainly be transmitted for generations to come. It's something she says is a dangerous foreboding of things to come.

"And the media didn't deal with matter – the potential future conflicts, the hatred sewn by this feud – in a direct enough manner. This really worried me," she told MENASSAT.

Is reconciliation between the factions possible? Khalil suggested in the article that it is possible that Hamas and Fatah could reconcile, and establish a national unity government.

"But who can forget or erase the history of hatred carried by all those who were mistreated both before and after the conflict? This is a very important discussion to have in civil society, especially when there is a legislative council that is pretty much asleep at the wheel, and when there are human rights NGOs that only issue statements of denouncement and rejection rather than doing anything concrete," she said.

Khalil in Beirut

Khalil was chosen as the Freedom of Press winner out of a group of 93 reporter finalists from a total of 18 Arab countries.

"It's given me a strong moral push – winning this prize," she told MENASSAT, adding, "I feel that if I can touch people's lives, ordinary people, by treating the subjects that are considered 'off-limits' in our societies, and in doing so win such prizes – well I feel like I'm on the right track."

Khalil was allowed to visit Beirut to accept her award under a rare travel visa. Indeed, when she accepted the award last week, she told an audience of government MP's and journalists, "My visit to Lebanon is a prize in itself. As Palestinian journalists, we only communicate with our Arab peers in foreign capitals – a sad fact of the political realities here."

More significantly, Khalil told MENASSAT that she was honored to receive the award because of her respect for Kassir.

"When he was killed, I felt like another person like me was assassinated because we both reported against the current, and I remember a sentence Kassir used to say: 'Every time I see a gun, I pull out my pen.' Something I like to think I can relate to," she said.

The Samir Kassir Award for Press Freedom celebrates the life of one of Lebanon's most prominent independent journalists who was assassinated in June of 2005. He was an independence activists who wanted to end Syria's 29-year military and security presence in Lebanon.