Prison break: From Gaza to Stockholm and back

MENASSAT’s Gaza Correspondent Ola Madhoun experiences daily challenges that would drive most reporters to quit the business. After a recent trip to Sweden for a training course in Journalism and Democracy, she reflects on what it means to be a reporter in Gaza while the international community waxes poetic about democracy and justice.
ola madhun
MENASSAT's Gaza correspondent Ola Madhoun in Stockholm for the Institute for Further Education of Journalists’ training course. © Ola Madhoun

GAZA, December 24, 2008 (MENASSAT) — A recent trip to Stockholm has forced me to revise cherished concepts I’ve held about democracy and freedom—concepts that I’ve nourished despite the fact that I've lived without electricity in a place that is nothing more than a glorified prison: the Gaza Strip.

In November, I was among 18 Arab journalists chosen to take part in a training course organized by Sweden's Fojo International (the Institute for Further Education of Journalists) around the theme, Journalism and Democracy.

From the moment I was informed of my acceptance to the program in October, I knew my biggest challenge would be leaving the besieged Gaza Strip.

Gazans are forbidden from leaving through the lone northern border with Israel, the Erez crossing, and as the date of the conference came closer, my fears and frustrations grew. I wondered how was I going to get to Sweden in time?

I repeatedly applied for permission from the Israeli authorities to leave through Erez, but all of my requests were denied with no explanation given.

In the end, I left through the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip—a border crossing controlled by the regime of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and one that has been nearly as problematic to cross during the two-year Israeli siege.

Five days late to Stockholm, my Arab co-participants celebrated the arrival of the "journalist from Gaza."

Warda, an Algerian colleague in the workshop told me, "I was expecting an angry, sad face, but I see in front of me the opposite now, and I want to know the secret of this optimism and this broad smile."

Life in Gaza teaches us that our optimism is our survival, and the best days are yet to come. Perhaps this optimism was the secret of my confusing smile—a smile of a Palestinian journalist who endured a lot just to leave Gaza.   

An alien world

I had created an image in my head about media and journalism in Sweden, but I was still surprised by the immense respect journalists were afforded there. Sweden was a country where press and media were truly seen as a watchdog to abuses of power—the Fourth Power, and a balance to the three powers of government (executive, legislative, judicial).

One thing that I shared with the other Arab participants was a feeling that there was a degree of freedom missing in our countries, especially compared to what we saw in Sweden.

We visited radio and television stations, newspapers, magazines and news agencies, and observed how Swedish journalists work without the editorial restrictions that are so commonplace in Arab newsrooms.

I can't help but laugh when I remember one workshop during which we were asked to simulate an interview with the US President.

As one participant played the role of the President, the rest of the group challenged him, asking questions about news they considered "underreported."

It struck me that there was this concept of near unfettered access to a President.

Could I, or any of my Arab colleagues, discuss sensitive issues with our presidents (or even with visiting presidents)? Could we actually ask our leaders if they have the right to decide that certain material cannot be published if they deem it would affect national security?

Sweden was another world to me.

Then, with one email, I was jolted back to a sense of reality  of life in Gaza.

"Do you have electricity in Sweden?" asked one my Gaza colleagues just days before I was going to return.

On our last Friday in Sweden, our main instructor, Sam Capadia, asked us about the change we will try and bring to our countries and neighborhoods from the extensive workshops held on freedom of press and democratic values?

One of my colleagues answered without missing a beat, "I'll take back a nice coat I bought for my wife and some expensive clothes for my children."

The rest of us offered our "feel-good" answers of what we would take back, but to this day, I'm convinced my colleague's answer was the most honest.

Return to prison

In the end, I went back to my prison, and after my one-month absence, I was struck but not surprised that the situation had gotten worse in Gaza.

Although I returned with a new energy, the reality of the situation in Gaza deprived me of any outlet for this energy; this rejuvenation I experienced on my trip, in my professional and personal life, was all for naught, it seemed.

I returned to restriction. 

I was unable to reply to the scores of emails from friends and colleagues who wanted to know if I had arrived safely back to Gaza because there was a 48-hour blackout when I arrived.

In the complete darkness of Gaza, Sweden seemed a utopia.

It's not easy being a journalist in Gaza when you see the squalor and the bloody nature of the Israeli siege that suffocates some 1.5 million Palestinians in a 360 square kilometer area—perhaps the most densely populated place on the planet.

I suspect it's good for me to have left Gaza for a while, to experience another life where death and destruction aren't so ever-present, where I can feel that the world is functional.

But for me, the problem will always be what happens afterwards because I will always come back to Gaza, and you can't escape reality here.