Palestinians lost their long-time leader, President Yasser Arafat, in 2004 and the election of his successor was set for 9 January 2005. The various Palestinian factions agreed on a truce so political chaos was averted. The Palestinian media was the target of much violence due to political instability and a journalist was killed in Gaza.

A sea of people surrounded President Yasser Arafat's Ramallah headquarters when he was buried there on 12 November 2004 after being forced to live in the building surrounded by the Israeli army since 2001. He died the day before in a Paris hospital after weeks of conflicting reports about his health. Former prime minister Mahmud Abbas was quickly named as his successor as head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and official candidate of his Al-Fatah movement in presidential elections on 9 January 2005.

By the end of 2004, at least 3,549 Palestinians and 1,016 Israelis had been killed in the Palestinian intifada (uprising), which entered its fifth year on 28 September, according to official Israeli and Palestinian figures. Palestinian institutions were paralysed in 2004 by a power struggle between the old guard and a younger faction of Al-Fatah, which is the backbone of the PLO and all-powerful in the Palestinian Authority. Arafat's stubbornness blocked prime minister Ahmed Qureia from reforming the security services, whose passivity and abuses sparked many incidents and violence against civilians, especially journalists.

In November, the Palestinian leadership ordered public and privately-owned media, including TV and radio, not to incite people to attack Israelis. On 18 November, a week after Arafat's death, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon demanded an immediate halt to what he called hate-filled propaganda on Palestinian TV. Abbas agreed to the demand but said the halt would have to matched on the Israeli side.

Dozens of privately-owned local radio and TV stations operate on the West Bank and local radios have now sprung up in the Gaza Strip, which had hitherto been under tighter rule. The stations specialise in warning their listeners in advance about Israeli military operations and air-raids.

The Palestinian media are more independent than in other Arab countries but this is on a day-to-day basis. The most critical journalists are arrested or physically attacked by the security services and others are threatened and practice self-censorship. The privately-owned media are harassed by political parties and the Palestinian Authority, sometimes through the Gaza Palestinian journalists' union. Newspaper editors, some of whom are party politicians, fear reprisals and prefer not to cover topics seen as anti-patriotic or relating to Arafat himself.

The opposition media, mostly supporting the Hamas militants, is censored or has been shut down. Internet use is unrestricted however and people can freely watch foreign TV stations through satellite dishes.

Violence against the media grows

Threats, vandalism, physical attacks and even killings of journalists have increased alarmingly since September 2003, helped by lawlessness and security confusion throughout 2004, especially in Gaza, and were caused by political score-settling and power-struggles among Al-Fatah factions.

Apart from official condemnations, sometimes by Arafat himself, these attacks on press freedom were not seriously investigated and clear efforts were not made to prevent their repetition.

Saifeddin Shahin, correspondent in the Gaza Strip for the satellite TV station Al-Arabiya, was beaten up on 8 January by five armed and hooded men, one of whom said he belonged to Al-Fatah and wanted to "give him a lesson in journalism." Al-Fatah denied any involvement. The attack may have been linked with Shahin's coverage of anniversary celebrations of the 1959 founding of Al-Fatah. Five months earlier, Al-Arabiya's offices in Ramallah were ransacked by armed men who said they belonged to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades.

The offices of the privately-owned weekly Al-Daar in Gaza City were ransacked during the Muslim feast of Aid El-Adha between 1 and 3 February. Editor Hassan al-Kashef ruled out ordinary criminals since nothing was stolen during the attack. He said he thought the paper was being warned for its reporting on corruption within the Palestinian Authority and other topics.

Khalil al-Zebin, 59, editor of the fortnightly An-Nashra and a close adviser of Arafat, was shot dead in his car in Gaza at night on 1 March. Palestinian officials condemned the murder and said they had begun an investigation. But no result was announced, so the crime went unpunished.

An Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency photographer, Jamal Aruri, was beaten up in a parking lot near his home in Ramallah on 22 April by two masked men with clubs. His left elbow was injured, his face and body bruised and he has hospitalised for a day. He told police he did not know why he was attacked, as he had no problems with anyone.

An Israeli Druze reporter, Riad Ali, who was working as interpreter and journalist for the US TV network CNN, was kidnapped in Gaza on 27 September. CNN correspondent Ben Wedeman said he saw a young Palestinian with an AK-47 rifle get out of a car that cut in front of the taxi carrying the TV crew. "He pointed his gun at the car and asked which of us was Riad Ali. Riad identified himself and was ordered to follow the man. We come to Gaza all the time. A lot of people know us here and we've never really had any problem."

Ali was handed over to Palestinian police the next day, shortly after release of a video believed to be from the Al-Aqsa Brigades showing him as a prisoner saying he and other family members had done their military service in the Israeli army and asking fellow Druzes not to help the army since they should be on the side of the Palestinians. Al-Aqsa said it had nothing to with the kidnapping, which it called harmful to the Palestinian cause, and appealed for Ali's release.

In 2004...

  • 1 journalist was killed
  • 1 kidnapped
  • 1 wounded
  • 3 physically attacked
  • and 1 media office ransacked

Personal account

"Why did you fire?"

Palestinian cameraman Nael Shyoukhi has worked for the international news agency Reuters on the West Bank for the past decade. Like 95% of Palestinian journalists, he was unable for a long time to get the Israeli press card he needs to pass through Israeli military checkpoints.

Nael Shyoukhi was pleased when his Tel Aviv lawyer, hired by Reuters, told him recently that the Israeli High Court had certified he had no "security record." It meant he could apply again for a special permit to travel to Israel, as well as for a press card from the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO). But first he had to get a magnetic ID card, required by Israel since 2001 and issued to some Palestinians after approval by the Israeli security services.

He now has these items and can freely enter and leave Jerusalem, though he cannot move around the city after 7 p.m. – a problem for Reuters, which works around the clock. He also has to renew his permit every three months.

Shyoukhi had come up against a brick wall for the past four years. Whenever he showed his Reuters journalist card at Israeli army checkpoints, including those in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, the soldiers always asked for his GPO press card.

But since 1 January 2001, virtually all Palestinian photographers, reporters and cameramen have been refused the GPO accreditation, so they have to bargain a way through or else go back or take another road.

"Can you can imagine the hassle it is for a news agency when its journalists can't get to places," he says. "And the waste of time, money and lawyers' fees, as well as the frustration?"

It was also impossible after the start of the second Intifada in September 2000 for him to work out of the Reuters office in Jerusalem. Before then, he sometimes went to film at the defence ministry in Tel Aviv, at parliament or the prime minister's office in Jerusalem. "I was respected like any Israeli colleague, but now, officially for security reasons, all Palestinian journalists are banned from working inside Israel."

The High Court ruling has allowed Shyoukhi to go when he wants to Jerusalem to see the Israeli psychologist Reuters has provided to help him deal with the traumas that have built up since he began working as a young cameraman in his home town of Hebron.

His "teacher," fellow cameraman and friend was Mazen Dana, also from Hebron, who was shot dead before his eyes by US soldiers in Iraq on 17 August 2003. The US army said troops had mistaken his camera for a rocket-launcher but had acted according to military rules so could not be blamed.

Shyoukhi is still haunted by the memory. "It was our last day in Iraq and we'd gone to film the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad in an area 100% controlled by the Americans. There were no trees. Everything was clearly visible. We asked the soldiers guarding the front of the prison if we could film it. They said yes and we filmed it.

"As we were putting the equipment back in the car, Mazen saw a US convoy passing the prison and said: 'Hey! There's a last picture' and got the camera out of the car again. Immediately shots were fired. I started running. Mazen was hit in the chest. When the soldiers took his body into the prison, I asked the ones guarding the front of the prison who had given us permission: "Why did you shoot ?" "Sorry," they said. "Nothing to do with us, it was the other guys."

The killing revived painful memories for Shyoukhi of when, in 1998, he had been shot at by Israeli soldiers in Hebron. He was standing with a group of Palestinian journalists after filming a demonstration by Jewish settlers when soldiers fired rubber bullets and he was hit on the head, chest and back. As he lay on the ground they fired two more. The incident was filmed.

Former army spokesman Daniel Seaman, now GPO chief, agreed to look at the footage as part of a Canadian documentary. He was visibly shocked and embarrassed, admitted that nothing seemed to justify the shooting and personally apologised to Shyoukhi. But Shyoukhi was still waiting to get his Israeli press card so he could get through those Israeli checkpoints.

December 2004


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