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Hamas butts heads with local media

Posted by vmsalama on May 15, 2006

Vivian Salama
Middle East Times


RAMALLAH —  At least seven Palestinian journalists have reported receiving alleged death threats for their scrutinizing coverage of the Hamas government. According to the Palestinian Journalists’ Union, the threats – received by telephone, e-mail and fax – were said to be signed by Hamas.In the embattled Palestinian territories, leeway for journalists to report has been impeded in the past. A number of reporters were reportedly beaten for reproachful coverage in the past, and in 2004, a journalist who ran a government-funded magazine was killed.Parliamentarians say that further development of the Palestinian owned-and-operated media is a priority as it serves as the mouthpiece for the ruling party and a barometer for the political struggle with Israel.

Under Palestinian law the president remains the highest authority over the public media. Fatah officials are concerned, however, that when President Mahmoud Abbas must go through parliament to pass any legislation related to the media, his minority faction will not be able to get a word in edgewise.“There will probably be a struggle,” admits Palestine’s former deputy prime minister and minister of information Nabil Shaath. “I think Hamas will try to take over the radio and television from the president. Even when the president tries to implement laws, these will be stopped by parliament if Hamas doesn’t like them.”“There is really a great deal of uncertainty thus far,” says Ziad Abu Amr, an independent MP from Gaza. “The media is a tool in the struggle. This is a national struggle and so we mustn’t air just any programming in haste.”The Hamas-run parliament is currently forced to convene in split sessions. Prime Minister Ismail Haniya had to address his Ramallah-based cabinet from Gaza via satellite uplink. Resembling a businessman more than militant leader, Haniya admits that a cut in aid will be detrimental to the prosperity of Palestine, but emphasizes that the new government will not bow to foreign pressure.The victory of Hamas, deemed a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel, instantly threatened Palestine’s flow of financial aid. Nearly $2 billion of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA’s) annual budget comes from overseas sources, the majority from the European Union (EU).In April the US agreed to provide some $245 million in response to the growing humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories – the money would be distributed through the United Nations and other non-Palestinian NGOs. Most surprising, however, was an undertaking by the EU to send $143 million in emergency aid to the PA.

A portion of the EU aid package to Palestine goes to funding its state-run media. A far cry from the often militant programming that defined Palestinian media in the days of the Intifada, today’s Palestinian media – made up of some 80 networks – risks being silenced more so by financial loses than by the bullets that continue to be exchanged with the state of Israel.

“From the first days of the intifada in October 2000, Palestinian TV canceled all regular programming,” recalls Itamar Marcus, director of the ringwing Israeli group Palestinian Media Watch. “It was a nonstop war atmosphere with one-two-three clips encouraging young kid to be shaheed [martyrs]. Since the elections, we’ve seen a rise in violent clips – clips with a little more hatred in the messages being broadcast.”

During the second intifada Palestinian media centers in Gaza and the West Bank often served as targets for the Israeli military. In February 2002, for example, Israeli soldiers left retaliatory explosives in the Ramallah-based Palestinian Broadcasting Company (PBC) headquarters following a deadly massacre on Jewish guests at a Bat Mitzvah in Hadera. Several floors of the building were destroyed and the PBC was blown off the air.

One week after the attack, PBC’s deputy coordinator Maher Al Rayyes was the first to broadcast a message during experimental transmissions.

“Sons of Arafat know very well how to start from nothing; no one will mute the Palestinian voice,” he said.

Palestinians would go a step further, substituting regular programming with public service announcements promoting the glories of martyrdom. Commercials called out to children to, in one instance, “drop your toys; pick up rocks”. Such messages would peter out by the end of 2004, though critics believe that they have the potential to resurrect with the succession of the Hamas-run government.

“By the time of the elections, Palestinian television was showing more variety – children’s programs, sports,” says Marcus. “Now so-called education programs dealing with ‘historical’ [issues] are bringing academics talking about why Israel has no right to the land, about the delegitimization of Israel.”

“We want to establish a framework that television is not just entertainment, but to educate the people,” says Ghazi Hamed, editor-in-chief for Hamas’s Al Resala (the Message) newspaper and spokesman for the Islamic resistance movement.

“It’s a cultural weapon. It talks of our morals, of our national struggle against Israel.”

Meanwhile, just as the PA under Fatah was plagued by corruption, rumors of wrong-doing behind the scenes of the state-run media have long cast a shadow of doubt over its integrity.With the chairs in parliament still warm from the former government, Hamas is already butting heads with the local media. This week, a number of Palestinian journalists complained of alleged death threats for reporting critical evaluations of the new government since it assumed power in March.Previously known more for its militant calls for the destruction of Israel, Hamas must urgently seek a balance between its hardliner political agenda and its social responsibility to the people of Palestine. Officials with the new government believe that it is by well-equipping Palestine’s media arsenal that it will gain an advantage in their struggle to create a nation.

“It is not to our advantage to broadcast messages against Israel or America,” notes Youssef Rezqa, Palestine’s new minister of information under Hamas. “We want to correct the international image of Hamas through the media. There is so much about Hamas that has been forgotten because of this political panic.”


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