Hamas government forces Gaza TV/radio stations to pay up or shut up

A Gaza-based rights organization - Al-Damir - reported that the Hamas-led telecommunications ministry was imposing huge licensing fees on radio and TV stations that could mean widespread closures. The organization said the move was part of a series of "unconstitutional decisions" taken by Hamas-affiliated ministers in Gaza in the aftermath of the recent Gaza War, a charge the government denies.
Youssef al-Mansi, the Hamas minister of Communications and Information Technology. He said many radio/TV stations have been operating illegally since 1996. © Maan

GAZA, May 13, 2009 (MENASSAT) - Youssef al-Mansi, the Hamas minister of Communications and Information Technology made the decision in the first week of May to levy huge licensing fees on radio and TV stations in Gaza, that most can't afford and could mean widespread closures.

In a phone call with MENASSAT, Al-Mansi defended the decision saying the decision applies to radio and TV stations that have been working for years without any license "in clear defiance of a 1996 law."

But Khalil Abu Shamaleh, director of Al-Damir for Human Rights in Gaza, said Al-Mansi's decision was one of a series of governmental decisions that were threatening public services that Gazans had come to rely on, particularly after the recent Gaza war.

In a public statement this week, Shamaleh called on Gaza Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh to investigate the decision.

"We are surprised with the Minister’s decision because these broadcast outlet closures would prevent a wide majority of Gazans from listening to stations that have played a major role in transmitting news and information, especially since Gazans are still living under Israel's total blockade of the territory.”

Al-Damir suggested the Gaza government exempt media outlets that survived the Gaza war from the licensing fees, citing post World War II Germany and Japan as examples of two governments that froze taxation for ten years in order to support re-building institutions after war time.

The closure of radio and TV stations in the Gaza Strip would also mean the job losses for thousands of Palestinians in a territory that has a 65 percent unemployment rate, and where 80 percent of Gazans depend on humanitarian aid for their basic sustenance.

The ongoing Israeli siege has also forced some 95 percent of the factories and industrial business in Gaza to close.

"The Hamas-led government is acting as if nothing is happening in Gaza,” Shamaleh said.

Communications Minister defends the decision

Still, Communications Minister, Youssef al-Mansi, disputed all of the claims by Al-Damir. Al-Mansi told MENASSAT that the radio and TV stations in question were also guilty of "spreading anarchy and chaos" in a post-war environment.

He said the telecommunications ministry, in collaboration with the Information and Interior Ministries, has asked the threatened radio and TV stations to provide a license for more than a year - pre-dating Israel's attack on Gaza last December. But, he said, no one responded.

The 1996 law requiring broadcast licenses, Al-Mansi contends, is there to define the framework for artistic, administrative and financial regulations which set the standards for the licensing requirements.

"Unfortunately, these stations worked for many years without any licenses during what I call 'the chaos period.' New stations springing up feel entitled to operate without licenses."

According to government sources, the 1996 law gives the ministry of telecommunications the right to close the stations within seven days since none of the stations have responded to what Al-Mansi said were repeated attempts to address the issue.

Answering Al-Damir's calls for a waiving of fees in a post-war environment,  he said, "We are not a legislative department, but an executive one that only applies the law. To have a tax exemption or waiving of fees, the legislative council would have to approve a new law to exempt the radios of these licensing agreements.”

The stations retaliate

The telecommunications ministry also counters the claims that the fees are as high as claimed and are related to the transmitters in the stations.

But even the Hamas-run Al-Aqsa radio station would be affected by the ministries decision to levy licensing fees.

Ibrahim Daher, Al-Aqsa's manager said that the Communications Ministry has refused to pay the annual broadcast permit for his station - which he said was around 9600 Jordanian Dinars ($13,500).

“I intended to pay this amount, thinking it was a one time only fee, then I stopped when I realized it was an annual fee,” he told MENASSAT.

Daher agreed with Al-Damir's assessment that local radio stations were invaluable in transmitting information during the recent war on Gaza.

"I think the communications ministry should explain how it plans to help local stations in assuring they get what they pay for."

Daher said that there were particular issues with a lack of governmental enforcement for frequency overlapping. "We've asked other stations to set up 'filters' to prevent overlapping," he said, adding that nothing had been done.

Al-Quds radio, Al-Shaeb (The People), Al-Iman (Faith), Al-Buraq , Alwan (Colors), and Al-Asra (The Prisoners) radio wrote a joint statement asking the Hamas Communications Ministry to cancel other fines imposed on them in order to pay for their licenses.

“We were surprised that the Palestinian Communications Ministry in Gaza asked us to adhere to the 1996 law," the statement read, adding, "They haven't shown any support for our actions - institutionally or financially - and have done nothing to protect frequency overlapping for 'legally' operating outlets - or protect these institutions from Israeli interference.”

Meanwhile, the group of radio stations demanded the government pass laws to lessen the burden on Palestinian media institutions operating "under the blockade."

"The telecommunications ministry knows more than anyone else the role local Palestinian radio and TV stations played during the war on Gaza, and the casualties they suffered in the name of reporting in a professional manner."