The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) under President Yasser Arafat appears to be easing its repression of the Palestinian media. There has been a notable decrease in the incidence of arrest and detention of outspoken journalists and the closure of independent newspapers – frequent occurrences during the initial two years of Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and Gaza. Such promising indicators, however, don't tell the full story. "We aren't sending material to the Palestinian censor because we haven't such a thing," explained Maher al-Alami, editor of the Jerusalem daily Al-Quds, who was detained by Palestinian security forces in December 1995 for refusing to publish an article about Arafat on the front page of his newspaper. "But on the other hand, we have self-censorship."

Indeed, according to many Palestinian journalists, the PNA's harsh crackdown on dissenting journalists in the early months of its existence has instilled widespread fear among the press. Vigorous reporting or critical analysis of the PNA may lead to the closure of their newspapers, detention, or mistreatment. As a result, news stories pertaining to PNA policy matters tend to mirror the accounts of WAFA, the official Palestinian news agency. Whatever "critical" reporting exists is politically toothless, sidestepping truly sensitive issues.

Although the press rarely provokes the authorities, journalists still have to contend with the unpredictable behavior of the security forces. In May, security agents detained and beat Agence France-Presse photographer Fayez Noureddin for taking a photograph of a donkey near a beach in the Gaza Strip. They accused him of distorting "the image of the city and the Palestinian Authority." In another incident, Arafat's bodyguards physically assaulted three journalists in August who were attempting to cover a PNA cabinet meeting in Gaza.

While overall the outlook for press freedom gives little cause for optimism, one positive development was the PNA's approval of some 30 broadcast licenses for private radio and television stations – a clear indication of its desire to diversify the nascent Palestinian media. It remains to be seen, however, what degree of independence the PNA will allow these stations in their news coverage.

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