Radio silence in Gaza

The media war in Gaza is escalating, with the latest casualty Sawt al-Shaab or Voice of the People, a radio station associated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

[UPDATE: Sawt al-Shaab was allowed to reopen on August 5; it was closed down for three days.]

GAZA CITY, August 4, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Last Sunday, dozens of Palestinian journalists, politicians and rights activists gathered outside the Gaza offices of Sawt al-Shaab (Voice of the People) radio. They had come to protest the closure of the radio station, a day earlier, by the de facto Hamas government in Gaza.

"The Voice of the People radio will be back on the air," Dr. Rabah Mohannah, a member of the Gaza political bureau of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) , promised the protesters.

Hama's decision to shut down Sawt al-Shaab came as something of a suprise to many journalists in Gaza. Until now the Hamas crackdown has focused mostly on media affiliated with the rival Fatah party. But Sawt al-Shaab is associated with the PFLP, a movement which is in fairly good standing with the Hamas government in Gaza.

A day earlier, Hama's Interior Minister, Imad Al-Ghossayn, had justified the decision by saying, "Sawt al-Shaab was closed because of the role it has played in spreading lies and rumors, and for causing sedition in Gaza, after it had forgotten its national and professional responsibilities, and its subjectivity in using freedom of opinion and expression as specified by the law."

According to insiders, Sawt al-Shaab was seen as too critical of Hamas since the Islamic group won parliamentary elections in 2006 and then took control of the Gaza Strip by force in 2007.

Muzzling dissent

Sawt is the latest victim in a Hamas crackdown on media outlets and journalists after a car bomb on a Gaza City beach killed six people on July 25. It coincides with a bloody weekend of fighting in Gaza between Hamas security forces and a family aligned with Fatah, the Hels family. Nine people are believed to have been killed in the recent violence.

Journalists and media outlets associated with Hamas' political rival Fatah have faced increasing difficulties in their work over the past two weeks. Fatah has retaliated to a lesser extent against journalists and media associated with Hamas media in the West Bank. In all, both governments have arrested a total of 50 journalists in what are clearly politically motivated arrests.

Over the weekend, Hamas security agents also shut down the Abu Dhabi Channel television station for three hours before leaving. Hamas later released a statement saying it had made a mistake.

The chairman of the Swat al-Shaab radio, Thou al-Fakkar al-Sawirjo, said, "The closure of the radio station is part of Hamas' policy of muzzling people critical of their recent actions. It is also a means of creating one voice on the airwaves."

He told MENASSAT that members of Hamas' security forces stormed into the station's offices in the Borj al-Basha neighborhood in Gaza City on August 2, cutting the electricity and forcing the employees out of the building. Eyewitness said the Hamas agents insulted the staff and gave the employees no choice but to leave, saying the decision had come directly from the Interior Ministry.

"Our station management made numerous calls to the government and opened many back channels to pressure government officials into getting our radio back on the air. We are here to serve the Palestinian people," Al-Sawirjo said.

Interior minister Al-Ghossayn said he had asked all the media institutions to be subjective, neutral, professional and nationally responsible. Sawt al-Shaab, he said, did not live up to these standards.

Ashraf Abu al-Hol, the head of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram's Gaza office, denounced the move and rejected the government's justification for closing down Sawt al-Shaab.

"Even if the station crossed the lines and spread erroneous news, as the Ministry claims, the government should have issued a warning first. I think its closure is against the values Hamas says it is protecting, and this hurts everyone," Al-Hol told MENASSAT.

Khalil Abu Shamala, director of the Al-Damir Association for Human Rights, said that shutting down Sawt Al-Shaab has greater implications than just silencing one radio station.

"Our association has asked the government to re-open Sawt Al-Shaab and all the closed media institutions, including all three banned newspapers, because they are a platform for freedom of opinion and the unity of the Palestinians."

No legal grounds

At Sunday's sit-in, PFLP leader Dr. Rabah Mohannah, warned against letting internal conflict distract the Palestinians from the fight against Israel.

"Sawt Al-Shaab will make every effort to face the occupation and will not be led into internal clashes. Instead, we will concentrate on the popular democratic struggle," he said.

Jamil Majdalawi, another member of the PFLP political bureau, also denounced Hamas' attempts to silence the media.

"They are abusing basic freedoms and we're asking Hamas to stop its misguided policies and return to dialogue and national unity." he said.

Khaled al-Batesh, a leading member of the rival Al-Jihad Al-Islami (Islamic Jihad) party, also said that Hamas should rescind the decision to close the radio station.

"Sawt Al-Shaab is actually one of the national voices of Palestine, and is has always defended its people by broadcasting balanced news."

Rights activist Mohsen Abu Ramadan told MENASSAT that there are no legal grounds to take the station off the air.

"International laws which Hamas has said it respects, like the right to free opinion and speech, are being violated. The Hamas leadership should try not to let their political struggles affect the media and it should return to the negotiating table."
In its report on the abuses against journalists in July, the Palestinian Journalists Bloc said that press freedom in the Palestinian Territories witnessed a sharp decline this summer. The Bloc called on both parties in Gaza and the West Bank to draw the line where journalists were concerned and to allow open access to information.

Also read:

From Reporters Without Borders:

► Call for reopening of PFLP radio station in Gaza City