Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Ma'an editor misleads Just Journalism

Just Journalism interviews an editor of Ma'an News Agency, George Hale. Since I have been carefully following Ma'an for years, I was interested in what he had to say about censorship of his paper by Hamas and Fatah:

GH: The PA frequently harasses and arrests journalists. A TV reporter, Mamdouh Hamamreh, was recently arrested because his Facebook profile displayed an image poking fun at Abbas. They’re actually using this old Jordanian law that, believe it or not, prohibits criticizing the king! It’s fitting considering Abbas’ term expired two years ago last month.

But there you have another example which raises questions about Fayyadʼs two-year plan, which vows to reform these outdated and unusual laws. He says he’s taking initiative but the monarchy law is, inexplicably, still on the books. Why is that?

MW: Ma’an’s journalism, though, seems pretty unfettered in terms of the damning information it relays about either government. On the whole, how would you describe freedom of speech in the West Bank?

GH: For me, excellent. People often have a hard time believing Ma’an operates without input from the authorities. But this is my third year on desk, and not once have I found evidence of serious pressure for anyone to ignore a story or to publish another. This is to the government’s credit, but their other tactics muddle that record.

Fayyad’s authority is praised for its support for liberal principles. The reality is that Palestinians are more afraid, not less, to criticize his government than they were when he was appointed. The evidence isn’t anecdotal: In 2007, results of a semi-annual survey showed some 57 percent of Palestinians felt they could criticize the PA. The percentage by late 2010, more than a year into the lauded plan for statehood, should astound. It dropped to 27 percent following a consistent three-year decline.

Look no further than this poll the next time you wonder why a case like Abbas’ Facebook insult usually appears first in the Israeli press: Israelis don’t have to put up with the Palestinian Authority. Our sources have much more to lose.

MW: And how does that situation compare to the one in Gaza?

GH: Israel prevents our international staff from obtaining credentials to enter from the West Bank or inside Israel (unlike all other journalists). But by most accounts I understand the situation is much worse. According to that same poll, for instance, the number in 2007 was 52 percent but by last December, it was down to 19 percent.

Last month the mood for us in Gaza took a dark turn, when a Hamas-run newspaper published an ”investigation” into our Gaza office. The Hebrew Department is staffed by “Zionists,” Gazans were told. All our reporters — each of them identified in the report by their initials and places of residence — are tied to “Fatah security,” it says. We’re agents of Fayyad and Dahlan, basically. And so on.

Such clear-cut incitement to violence would not be worthy of reply if it weren’t so dangerous. The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, our member of the International Federation of Journalists, sided with Ma’an. But this means little because the union has been practically taken over by Fatah. A victim of the ongoing state of political disunity here.

Meanwhile, Hamas authorities have yet to speak out against its mouthpiece’s “reporting” about Ma’an. Since they will not disassociate themselves, it looks more and more like a precedent has been set for targeting us. Nevertheless, our reporters in Gaza are among the bravest Palestinians in journalism. They will not be intimidated.
Sorry, but Hale is describing Ma'an before the Hamas coup. The change in coverage was dramatic after the coup, and Ma'an even reported on the event that changed it:
The chief editor of Ma'an News Agency threatened to close the agency's Gaza office as a result of the pressure exerted on him and the agency's correspondents and photojournalists. The Al-Qassam Brigades visited the office, but did not harm any employee or property. Meanwhile, Hamas and their Fatah allies criticised Ma'an's reports and some issued threats.
Also in 2007, Hamas threatened journalists with death for reporting things they didn't want, and even in 2009 Hamas paid friendly visits to Ma'an to make sure that they keep toeing the Hamas line.

Ma'an's change in coverage was immediate and clear. While they had formerly been critical of Hamas, all of that ended. The only negative reporting one sees of Hamas in Ma'an is when they report what other entities have already mentioned, as when PCHR accuses Hamas of human righs abuses.

Original reporting that is negative about Hamas has disappeared from Ma'an's coverage, and while perhaps its Gaza reporters are brave, Hale's statement to Just Journalism is misleading.

Some of the interview is interesting, despite these problems.

(h/t T34)

(UPDATE: Changed the headline at Ma'an editor's request, "lie" was a bit strong but I do think it is misleading to say that Ma'an journalists "will not be intimidated" when clearly they are.)