Sep 07 2000

Freedom of expression? Sometimes

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles,Media Activism

How does one evaluate the level of the freedom of expression in any country? Is it by the existence of an independent media? Is it by the absence of censorship? What about self-censorship? Is the presence of private radio and television a sign of freedom of expression? What about laws? Is the presence of a press law good or bad for freedom of expression?

These are some of the discussions taking place in Palestine and on the air waves as a result of the recent hard hitting report by Amnesty International entitled, “Palestinian Authority: Shutting up Opposition.” The report is a scathing criticism of the policies of the Palestinian security forces in arresting individuals for expressing opinions unpopular with the PA, as well as punishing media organizations and journalists for their coverage of such statements. 

Having read this report, I recently attended a press conference announcing the creation of Shams: a network of seven private independent television organizations. Six are local television stations spanning the major West Bank cities (Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron) and the seventh is a television company in the process of obtaining a broadcasting license for the Gaza Strip. The members of this new television network – which is receiving initial support from the Danish government- are stations that broadcast news and current affairs, as well as cultural and educational programs.

What was curious about this meeting was that the discussion in the reception following the signing had nothing to do with the problems of the security apparatus over freedom of expression issues. Instead, the owners of these stations were busy talking about the latest ratings survey issued by the Palestinian Census Bureau. The bureau identified a recently opened station – one which illegally broadcasts only pirate movies and soap operas – as among the highest rated stations in the West Bank.

The stations’ anger was directed at the Ministry of Information, who issues the licenses for these stations and who has been lax in demanding that all stations abide by the mandatory regulation of producing at least 25% of their programs locally and not using pirated television programs.

The ministry of Information in Palestine is probably unique in the Arab world. It is, as far as I know, the only one of its kind in which the minister and the key staffers are the most aggressive supporters of freedom of expression. They are regularly on the record as supporting the rights of journalists and media organizations to free expression. They are regularly at the head of individuals protesting against the Palestinian Authority in cases of journalists’ arrests, or closures of radio or TV stations.

Nevertheless, the public position of the Ministry of Information doesn’t solve the problem. In Palestine today, there is a lack of clarity as to the strategic position of the Palestinian leadership regarding freedom of expression. On the one hand, newspapers are licensed without trouble. Political parties, human rights organizations and NGOs regularly produce publications that are very damning to the Palestinian Authority. Pictures of individuals tortured in Palestinian jails appear regularly in their publications. Private radio and television stations are allowed to operate, and these stations regularly broadcast programs that are not kind to the Palestinian Authority. Yet, while this is happening, arrests are carried out and the media and certain political figures are harassed. These attacks although abhorrent, are haphazard and not part of a regular trend in the Palestinian Authority. Political circumstances, moods of senior political leaders, and the high political cost of a particular action against the media, or opposition figure, often determines whether a person is arrested or a media organ is shut down.

This moodiness in dealing with the issue of freedom of expression causes many problems. Journalists and politicians tend to practice a form of self-censorship. Media owners are forced to look for political cover and leverage in order to lessen the possibility that a decision – either administrative or made by a security official – can harm them. Naturally, such a partnership between the media owners and the political powers curtails the independence of the media and causes it to turn a blind eye to genuine stories that should be reported.

The answer to the question of whether there is freedom of expression in Palestine, today, is “sometimes.”

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