Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Freedom of the press, PalArab style (VI)

On Monday, Hamas tried to show its best face to foreign journalists:
'Gaza today is better,' Ismail Haniyeh, still calling himself Palestinian prime minister, told dozens of foreign reporters who joined a bus tour of the coastal enclave that took in a prison, a church, border posts and security installations.

'But the strangling siege ... has affected Gaza very much,' he added, two days before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice embarks on a new round of peace diplomacy in Israel and the West Bank. 'I hope on your visit you have seen the suffering and will convey to the world the reality of the suffering.'

A Hamas official, acting as tour guide, drove home the point the party wished to make: 'You can see now Gaza is more calm,' he said as the buses drove through Gaza. 'Everywhere in Gaza is under control. Everyone bids you welcome. You can go anywhere.'

Journalists were shown round a prison which once housed Hamas political prisoners and now, Hamas officials said, houses only common criminals who in turn spoke well of their treatment.

One said he was serving six months for drug offences but he expected remission for learning to recite from the Koran.

But at the same time, Hamas was seizing newspapers that it didn't think were pro-Hamas enough:

Hamas militiamen on Monday prevented the distribution of three Fatah-affiliated newspapers in the Gaza Strip and briefly detained the local agents of the dailies.

This is the first time that the newspapers, published in the West Bank, were prevented from distribution in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian journalists said thousands of copies from the three newspapers were seized by Hamas's paramilitary Executive Force on the Palestinian side of the Erez border crossing. The newspapers were taken aboard a truck to a Hamas security installation nearby in the town of Beit Hanan.

According to the journalists, six Palestinians working for the newspapers were detained by Hamas for questioning. Two of them, Hatem Kishawi and Samir Jaber, work for the Fatah-controlled Al-Ayyam, which serves as a mouthpiece for the Palestinian Authority. The other four work for the PA-funded Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda and Al-Quds, a pro-Fatah newspaper owned by a family from east Jerusalem.

Islam Shahwan, spokesman for the Executive Force, announced that the move was aimed at sending a warning to the newspapers to stop inciting against his force and Hamas. "They are publishing many lies about Hamas and the Executive Force," he charged. "In addition, they are ignoring the achievements of the Executive Force in imposing law and order in the Gaza Strip."

The three newspapers have been highly critical of Hamas's violent takeover of the Gaza Strip and have openly supported Fatah in its power struggle with the Islamist movement.

Some Hamas leaders recently called for banning the distribution of the newspapers in the Gaza Strip because of their anti-Hamas stance and in response to the PA's ongoing crackdown on Hamas figures and institutions in the West Bank.

Hamas's capture of the Gaza Strip has forced most Palestinian journalists and editors there to toe the line and refrain from criticizing the Islamist movement.

Gaza-based news Web sites that were once critical of Hamas have begun publishing stories that reflect negatively on Fatah.

Then again, why shouldn't Hamas try to control the news? Hezbollah managed quite well last summer.