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Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Arafat's Thugs Threaten Palestinian Journalists


A Palestinian newspaper editor recently fled Ramallah together with his wife and children after receiving death threats from the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of Fatah.
Before leaving for one of the Gulf countries, the editor told friends that the last threat came in the form of an envelope with a bullet that was sent to him by mail.

“Your fate will be like that of Nabil Amr,” the letter warned, referring to the Palestinian legislator who was shot and seriously wounded several weeks ago in Ramallah. The attack on Amr came almost immediately after he appeared on an Arab television station and criticized Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s performance and the lack of democracy and transparency in the PA.

The verbal and physical intimidation of Palestinian journalists, especially those who dare to report on issues that reflect negatively on Arafat and the PA, has almost become accepted practice in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The editor who packed his bags and headed for the Gulf was guilty of demanding financial and security reforms. Even worse, he had written a number of articles calling for the prosecution of top officials and ministers implicated in various corruption scandals.

He had good reason to flee Ramallah. The city has in recent years come under the control of thugs claiming to belong to different political groups. Their victims include legislators, senior officials, political activists, businessmen and ordinary men and women.

The Deputy Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hassan Khraisheh, complained that he had received death threats from unidentified gunmen because of his role in exposing the “cement scandal.” A Palestinian parliamentary committee found that top Arafat aides and ministers had been importing cheap cement from Egypt on behalf of Israeli construction firms. The cement, according to reports, was later used for construction of Israel’s security fence in the West Bank.

“There is a systematic campaign to silence any criticism of the Palestinian leadership,” said a legislator in Ramallah. “The campaign is directed not only against our journalists, but also against the foreign media and political leaders and activists.”

Another reform-minded legislator said he had decided to keep a low profile after the attempt on the life of Nabil Amr. “It’s becoming very dangerous,” he explained. “Today I’m afraid to say things in public for fear that I would be targeted.”

The general belief among many Palestinians in Ramallah is that the campaign is being orchestrated by Arafat’s inner circle. “All the guys who carry out the attacks are never caught,” said a respected journalist living in the city. “We believe that they enjoy the backing of senior officials in the Mukata [Arafat’s presidential compound].”

Arafat himself recently rebuked a group of Palestinian journalists for reporting extensively on the ongoing power struggle in the Palestinian Authority. “You must focus on the Israeli crimes against our people and the Aqsa Mosque,” he told the reporters.

The Palestinian Journalists Association, a body controlled by Arafat loyalists, went a step further by issuing a directive banning Palestinian journalists from covering the internal strife. The majority of the Palestinian journalists are complying with the new regulations.

Even many reporters working for Al-Jazeera and the foreign media have begun toeing the line. After all, they live in Ramallah and Gaza City and are subjected to the same threats.

As a result of the intimidation, Palestinians now have to rely on rumors, street pamphlets and outside sources to learn about what’s happening inside the Mukata. Last week, for instance, Palestinians learned from a number of London-based Arabic dailies that Arafat had bad-mouthed his estranged Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, who even threatened to resign.

Some legislators have complained that the Palestinian media was boycotting them on the instructions of Arafat’s office because of their demands for reforms. Jamileh Saydam, one of the lawmakers, said the Palestinian media was not giving her and many of her colleagues a chance to express their views. Instead, she added, the media focuses all the time on the same [pro-Arafat] legislators.

Arafat is under heavy pressure from the international community to endorse a series of financial and security reforms. But almost no one talks about the freedom of expression or the need to have independent and free media in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That’s perhaps the international community doesn’t even know that the Palestinian media is entirely controlled by Arafat and that many journalists are under threat. This is certainly a story that is not going to be told in Arafat’s newspapers and television stations.