In memory of the late Anthony Lewis of the New York Times. I reprint a column he wrote about me
Lese Arafat’s Majeste
By ANTHONY LEWIS
Published: May 26, 1997
Imagine an American President having the head of C-Span thrown in jail because he broadcast sessions of Congress in which the President was criticized. That is a rough translation of what has just happened in Yasir Arafat’s Palestine.
The victim of Mr. Arafat’s displeasure is Daoud Kuttab, a leading Palestinian journalist. He is being held incommunicado in a prison in Ramallah, in the West Bank.
I have known Mr. Kuttab for years, and like other foreign reporters and diplomats I respect him for his courage and honesty. The first concern has to be for his safety. Others imprisoned by the Palestinian Authority have been brutalized, and killed.
But the broader issue is the nature of the Palestinian polity. As President of the Authority, Mr. Arafat is intolerant of criticism and intemperate in his disregard for basic standards of freedom. His performance is blighting Palestinian hopes, and the Kuttab case is a telling example.
Mr. Kuttab has written unflinchingly about abuses of power by Israeli occupation authorities and by the new Palestinian regime. He was a columnist for Al Quds, an Arabic paper in Jerusalem, until the publisher gave in to an Arafat demand in 1994 and fired him. Last year the Committee to Protect Journalists gave him its International Press Freedom Award for his bravery.
He has been running a project very much like C-Span at an independent broadcasting station, Al Quds Educational Television. It carries live, uncut broadcasts of the Palestinian Legislative Council. The U.S. Agency for International Development provided a $25,000 pilot grant, and it has European support.
The Legislative Council, in its short life, has been remarkably independent of Mr. Arafat. Its members frequently criticize corruption in the Authority and abuses of human rights.
The Palestinian on the street could not read about that criticism because Palestinian newspapers were afraid to anger Mr. Arafat by printing it. When the verbatim broadcasts started, they attracted a wide audience. People watched through four hours of often prolix sessions.
Soon a curious thing happened. When Al Quds television broadcast a council session where Mr. Arafat was criticized, another signal covered the screen with a black rectangle.
The jamming came from the Authority’s official Palestinian Broadcasting Company. So Mr. Kuttab found when he was invited to check in the PBC control room. He was warned not to say anything.
Last Tuesday, May 21, The Washington Post carried a story about the jamming. That night Mr. Kuttab was telephoned by the Ramallah police chief, Col. Firas Ameleh, and asked to come in. He lives in Jerusalem, outside the control of the Authority, but he went anyway — and was arrested.
The next day Mr. Kuttab’s family tried to find out where he was. So did U.S. consular officers, who inquired because Mr. Kuttab is an American citizen. Colonel Ameleh and other Palestinian officials denied for hours that he was under arrest. Finally they admitted he was.
Mr. Kuttab’s lawyer and the U.S. Consul General, Edward Abington, were able to visit him on Wednesday. But the next day his wife and three children were turned away. Colonel Ameleh said he had orders from President Arafat’s office to let no one visit him. Mr. Kuttab started a hunger strike in protest.
On what charge was he held? After two days of silence, officials said he would be charged with violating the ”journalism law.” No one is sure what that means.
The whole affair, with its arbitrariness and mendacity, reeks of the view that it is lese majeste to challenge Yasir Arafat. Palestinians deserve better than that. They want democracy. The Legislative Council’s spirited criticism of corruption shows that, and so does the public response to Mr. Kuttab’s legislative broadcasts.
But more is at stake. Such action costs Mr. Arafat dearly in the respect he needs to negotiate a viable Palestinian homeland — respect in the world, and in Israel. It is essential for him, as for Palestinian hopes, to release Daoud Kuttab.