“Palestinian Media: A Reflection of Internal and Regional Political Fractures” by Julia Pitner

Vol. IV Issue 1, January 2012

“Palestinian Media: A Reflection of Internal and Regional Political Fractures”

By Julia Pitner

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Born out of politics that began with the signing of the Oslo Agreement in the fall of 1993, the media environment in the West Bank and Gaza is, at best, a confusing one. Until then, Palestinians had no opportunity to develop a broadcast media of their own.

The following year, the PLO established the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation (PBC), which served as the umbrella for the national Palestine TV and Voice of Palestine Radio with WAFA News Agency as a separate entity. Although the original intention was for the PBC to be independent, the three media outlets remained under the management of Arafat-friendly directors, leading Palestinians to progressively perceive PBC as a mouthpiece for Fatah.

In 1994, as negotiations on the Interim Agreement began, the PA issued the first of many “no-objection” licenses for local terrestrial media outlets. The PA’s decision, early in the negotiations of the Oslo process, to ensure as many de-facto stations as possible in order to strengthen their negotiating position, led to new licenses being given away to whoever asked when negotiations were not going well in 1998. The procedures established in 1995 to regulate the local media were ignored and little thought was given to the potential consequences.

The mid-1990s were a dynamic period for the new media sector in the West Bank and Gaza. Vigorous economic development, combined with foreign funding to support programming and the development and training of an independent local media led to a steep increase of media outlets. Progressively, the population switched from Israeli TV and radio to more local genre that appealed to local sensitivities. The number of local terrestrial media outlets increased from sixteen to fifty-two in 1999 and numbered seventy-one radio and television stations with thirty licenses pending by the end of 2006; the majority of which were funded by different Palestinian political factions.

However, this media explosion concurred with the dramatic increase in Arab satellite stations. Qatar launched Al-Jazeera in 1996, pushing the envelope of public debate on formerly forbidden topics and dispatched journalists throughout the world to cover stories. This eventually encouraged other Arab governments to respond by initiating their own satellite stations or changing the formats of existing ones.

In late 2000 and early 2001, the media environment in the West Bank and Gaza changed dramatically with the Al-Aqsa Intifida. Economic development not only halted, but was also reversed; advertisement and sponsorship of programs in the local media dropped drastically. The Palestine TV satellite suffered the same difficulties and began filling extra airtime with video clips from the PLO archives. Many local media outlets followed suit, believing the audience wanted heroic scenes of resistance. The stations with the ability to still broadcast also turned to Al-Jazeera, whose foreign correspondents were allowed to move freely for feed of local events. The community either turned to the satellite stations, or if they did not have access to satellite, they turned to Israeli radio or to the local stations that had resorted to pulling down and re-broadcasting Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the events in the West Bank and Gaza. As a result, Al-Jazeera became the main and most trusted source of information about events in the West Bank and Gaza. This shifted the dynamics of the nascent local media, and the view of Palestinian officials and political factions toward the use of media.

Such new dynamics became evident after the election of the Hamas-led government in February 2006 and the battle over the control of media erupted in earnest. Hamas accused the outgoing Fatah government, in their attempt to regulate local media outlets, of trying to close many stations by requiring permanent licenses with higher fees.

The political factions took advantage of the ensuing political and media chaos and in late 2006 and throughout 2007, they took the fight to the airwaves as the two main political factions battled on the ground. Independent local media outlets and journalists, caught in the middle, were often threatened if they did not side with one group or the other in reporting events.

Hamas managed to launch a terrestrial TV station in Gaza without a license in 2005, and launched a satellite station in October of 2006, both without approval. Radio and television stations affiliated with specific political factions and carrying political messages, began appearing in the West Bank and Gaza as the number of local terrestrial stations increased. Fatah also announced the launch of two satellite channels as several of their members sought to buy local radio stations in the West Bank.

As the Palestinian government began to split, so too did regional satellite media outlets. Al-Jazeera Arabic began to take sides, initially through its Al-Jazeera Live channel launched in the spring of 2007, airing solely from Gaza and only covering Gaza. Palestinians viewed Al-Arabia, more inclined towards the PA leadership in the West Bank by mid-2007.

Once in power in Gaza, Hamas quickly bolstered its control over the media and the airwaves. During the June 2007 battle in Gaza, several local radio stations took sides by airing militant music associated with specific factions. Radio stations known or perceived to be affiliated with Fatah or the PA were destroyed; other factional stations viewed to be against Hamas were forced to stop transmission.

Hamas strengthened its online news presence and declaring plans to construct a “Media City” to house all media outlets operating in Gaza. They “bought” two of the three satellite transmission companies to force regional and international outlets to rent from them, if they wanted to broadcast from Gaza. The remaining company was left alone, as it was the primary transmitter for the Al-Jazeera Arabic and Al-Jazeera Live channels. Al-Jazeera Live also played a role in the internal political division due to its perceived alliance with the de-facto government in Gaza.

Although the “Media City” never materialized, the de-facto government instead created a Media Center that monitors all media in Gaza. In addition, the government has taken several steps to control media content by issuing lists of prohibited terminology and topics.

In addition to using their own media outlets, the de-facto government in Gaza has used other regional media to continue its attacks on Fatah and the President’s office. Furthermore, Al-Jazeera took a direct stance with its production and airing of the “Palestine Papers” in January 2011 even after many of their Palestinian employees resigned, objecting to the editorial bent evident in the presentation. Sensationalized reports have appeared on Hamas news sites, remaining only until they were published by an Israeli news outlet, which then allowed them to quote the Israeli source.

While media freedoms, freedom of opinion and expression have improved somewhat in the West Bank, it waxes and wanes according to the political situation and the tensions between the two main factions. However, an altogether new and unexpected dynamic exploded on the scene with the Arab Uprisings at the beginning of 2011: the use of social media and the citizen journalist as news sources.

Although social media, especially Facebook, in the West Bank and Gaza was used by young activists and government officials alike, it was primarily seen as a tool for outreach, not for inciting change or for expressing and debating political frustrations. Twitter was only used by a few to follow activities in other countries and blogs were written by only a handful, usually by young journalists. After the events in Tunisia and the growing movement in Egypt, social activists began to realize the power of these tools to disseminate information, organize, attract the mainstream media to their cause, and to report on events as they happened. Officials in both the West Bank and Gaza also realized the potential of social media, not only as Tunisia and Egypt erupted, but also as the number of Facebook subscribers doubled. Local media outlets had added social networks to their websites the year before, but suddenly their sites became very active. The de-facto government in Gaza and in the West Bank began to monitor and track what was being written, posted, and planned. Similarly, the Israeli Defense Forces observed websites to gather information on potential security situations.

As the Palestinian March 15th and 5 May Facebook groups started to gain momentum in calling for an end to the political fracture and declaring their non-alliance with any of the factions, the West Bank Security Forces called in the leaders to warn them against demonstrations and began infiltrating the groups. Gaza Security Forces took a different approach and tracked IP addresses to arrest activists, who then began tweeting the events as they occurred. Although the Internet was never shut down, computers and cell phones were confiscated. Unlike the Arab regimes, the political factions in Palestine knew how to manage activists and utilize new media techniques to disseminate their messages, ultimately gaining support for their positions rather than shutting it down. Members of Hamas and Fatah began to form their own groups on Facebook, Yahoo, Google, and the new BlogSpot to post articles and responses, in addition to tracking and joining other social network groups. In addition to their broadcast media, the politicians and members of the political factions are utilizing such media to pass their messages and continue their conflict online.

The equation is being changed. The media, including television broadcasts and the Internet, is not just affected by the political situation in Palestine, but plays a central role in politics and is in itself, influencing politics.

About the Author

Julia Pitner has been the Chief of Party/Country Director for Internews Network, Palestine since 2006, for the Itisal, Aswatona, and the new Enhancing Palestinian Independent Media projects. She is responsible for the overall direction, management, and oversight for the program implementation. She is a Middle East specialist having actively worked on various issues involving different sectors of Middle Eastern society since 1987. Formerly, Julia worked as Regional Director and then Director of Search for Common Ground’s Middle East program and as Executive Director of the Institute of World Affairs, specifically on the Middle East program. She worked as a consultant and then as Vice-President of Layalina Productions, an Arabic television production project with Ambassador Richard Fairbanks.

Julia has over 19 years experience working directly with individuals and organizations in the Middle East and the international community involved in civil society, private business, media, and security at both governmental and non-governmental levels. She has lived in the region, in Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine, developing, managing, and coordinating various projects related to aspects of civil society and media in Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, Morocco,Tunisia, and Turkey.

Julia has written and published several articles on civil society, development, and media in the Middle East as well as the role of women in peace-building. She also delivered numerous presentations and papers on the development and impact of civil society and media; the issues of human rights; and political analysis of current events, trends, and conflicts in the region at international conferences.

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