News agency shuts down to protest unfair treatment of Palestinian media

The Palestinian news agency Ramattan has shut down operations to protest against last week's raid against its Ramallah offices by Fatah security forces. But Ramattan says the protest is directed not just against Fatah but against all intimidation of the media. "We just want to be able to work freely as a media organization."

BEIRUT/BETLEHEM, December 1, 2008 (MENASSAT)—When you open the Arabic web page of Ramattan, one of the largest Palestinian news agencies, you will see an unusual black page with the following message: "Ramattan suspends its work in the Palestinian Territories in objection to the harassment its bureaus are subject to in the West Bank.

In a climate of political rivalry in the Palestinian Territories, where both factions have been targeting journalists since the June 2007 confrontation, dividing territorial governance between Fatah and Hamas, Ramattan is the most recent media outlet to take a stance.

The ten-year-old news agency, which employs some 200 emloyees in offices in both the West Bank and Gaza, has been faced with intimidation and harassment, including a raid last week against Ramattan headquarters in Ramallah by the Palestinian Authority's security forces and the interrogation of eight of its employees. 

In an act of protest, the agency's managers decided to close down all its offices in the West Bank on Sunday and suspend its website.

Victims of political division

The English Ramattan website states becaue of "the relentless harassment and complications placed upon Ramattan by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, on top of the already more than difficult conditions faced from working in Occupied Palestine, Ramattan has decided to close its offices in protest to the unfair treatment and to once again clarify our position as the only independent Palestinian news agency..."

Mufid Abu Shamala, the administrator of the Ramattan website, told MENASSAT that Ramattan's action doesn't target anyone in particular. "We just want to be able to work freely as a media organization," he says. 

"We paid our dues four months ago and we still haven't received our official papers. And if we get them in Gaza, we can't use them in the West Bank, and vice versa. We have become a victim of the current political divisions."

Many media and human rights organizations have voiced their solidarity with the agency, including the Palestinian Institute for Communications and Development, the Palestinian Journalists Forum, the Palestinian Media Gathering, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and the Al-Damir rights association. 

"Ramattan was in recent years and still is the voice of truth, exposing the suffering of the Palestinian people and the crimes of the Israeli occupation to the international community," said Khalil Abu Shamala, the manager of the Al-Damir rights association.  

Twelve journalists in custody

The Palestinian Media Gathering stressed the necessity of allowing Palestinian media institutions and journalists to work without restrictions, saying that Ramattan is a perfect example of the national media refusing foreign and Israeli dependence.

Meanwhile, during the same week, reporter Na'el Nakhlah of the Al-Quds newspaper, was seized in the West Bank town of Al-Bireh on Thursday, increasing the number of journalists detained by the rival factions to twelve—nine by the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and three by Hamas in Gaza.

Saleh al-Masri of the Palestinian Media Gathering said that summoning Palestinian journalists, persecuting them and throwing them in the Palestinian jails is "unpatriotic and unethical."

He denounced the arrest of Nakhle, clarifying that the reporter went to a meeting with the General Information department on Saturday after he was summoned, and did not return home.

"Throwing journalists in the internal Palestinian conflict and using them as bargaining chips is unacceptable," said al-Masri. 

According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), not one of the journalist currently in detention has been charged or granted a trial. The organization believes most journalists were arrested only because they were working for media associated with the rival faction, although both sides have denied this.  

IFJ General Secretary Aidan White is not convinced by the denials.

"For months, Palestinian journalists have been used as pawns in the ongoing dispute between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Both sides claim journalists are a 'security risk' but it is little more than a device for intimidation, media control and political in-fighting," said White.

(Fadi Abu Sada contributed to this report from Bethlehem; Tania Tabar contributed from Beirut.)