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Freedom of the Press? PA Bans Israeli Press-Liaison Groups

Foreign Press Association to examine PA's recent statement that journalists are 'not welcome' if visiting under auspices of Israeli groups.

By Samuel Sokol
First Publish: 11/2/2010, 2:09 PM / Last Update: 11/2/2010, 1:58 PM

Flash 90

The Foreign Press Association (FPA), an industry association representing some 400 journalists employed by international news outlets who report from Israel and the Palestinian Authority, has announced that it will examine the PA's recent announcement that journalists are "not welcome" if visiting under the auspices of Israeli organizations.

According to Palestinian spokesman Ghassan Khatib, “journalists coming through an Israeli organization are not welcome.”

Khatib’s statement came as an explanation for the cancellation of a planned press junket to Jericho that was to take place last week. The trip was intended to provide foreign reporters with background information on the 10,000th anniversary of human settlement in the Biblical town. Considered to be the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, Jericho was among the first territories turned over to the Palestinian Authority in 1994 as part of the Oslo Accords.
 
This cancellation of the trip and the wider ban on Israeli media-liaison organizations will be discussed in depth during tomorrow's FPA board meeting.
 
MediaCentral Director Aryeh Green today contacted the journalists who were slated to attend the Jericho junket, urging them to register their concerns over the matter with the FPA.
 
Green stated that he believes the matter to be bigger than his organization, citing what he called the larger issue of journalists having "unfettered access to sources, stories and organizations throughout the region."

MediaCentral has taken foreign correspondents to many locations within the Palestinian Authority, including such locations as the PA administrative capital of Ramallah and the ancient city of Shechem, known in Arabic as Nablus.

As part of the Jericho junket, correspondents were scheduled to receive a briefing from Dr. Kholoud Daibis, the Palestinian Authority minister of tourism. The correspondents were also set to attend meetings with Jericho Regional Governor Kamel Hamid and local mayor Hassan Saleh.

Last week, Green released a statement in which he declared that he was “concerned and appalled” at what he called an “exclusionary and divisive policy.”

“The PA, interested in promoting coverage of subjects such as the history of a city like Jericho with its multi-faceted and multi-religious layers of settlement, has in the past been a partner with MediaCentral in helping foreign correspondents develop a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of the issues surrounding the conflict(s) in this region,” he said.

Green expressed his hope that the decision to ban Israeli organizations from leading press groups in Palestinian Authority-controlled areas is not a “step in the hardening of a Palestinian anti-Israel stance, nor a reflection of mounting restrictions on freedom of the press in the Palestinian areas.”

The PA responded harshly to MediaCentral’s accusation of press violations. In a statement, Khatib stated, “The Palestinian Government Media Center is very keen, as a new institution, to provide facilities for journalists wishing to report on the reality of life in the occupied Palestinian territories and give an accurate view of the political situation. What it is not prepared to do is work in cooperation with Israeli organizations dedicated to propaganda in support of the occupation.” Khatib quoted several statements made by Green that they allege indicate a pro-Israel bias.

According to the Jerusalem Post, the decision to ban MediaCentral may have been a result of Palestinian anger over a Los Angeles Times report that portrayed the PA’s celebration of the city’s anniversary in a less-than-flattering light.

The cancellation of the MediaCentral tour is part of a broader trend of the suppression of public discourse in the West Bank and Gaza. According to Reporters Without Borders’ 2010 Press Freedom Index, the Palestinian Territories came in at 150th place out of 178 jurisdictions listed.

Writing for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in 2006, Jerusalem Post Palestinian-affairs correspondent Khaled Abu Toameh explained that when reading Palestinian newspapers, a reader gets the feeling that “Palestinian journalists are [not] really free to write what they want.” “Many Palestinians hope for better times, but I don’t see real changes,” he noted sadly. “In fact, I see very worrying signs.”

“Today there are three major Palestinian newspapers: Al Quds, which is privately owned, and Al Hayam and Al Hayat al Jadeeda, which are funded by the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians also have an official TV station, which for many years was no different from the rest of the media under Arab dictatorships, a media that represents the official line all the time,” Abu Toameh wrote, underscoring the lack of choice for Palestinian media consumers.

The Palestinian Authority has also closed down foreign media outlets, including a four-day closure of Al Jazeera’s West Bank offices on the pretext that the pan-Arabic satellite network was “putting out false information.”

MediaCentral has indicated that it hopes to reschedule the field tour, “in cooperation with the PA and its tourism ministry,” in the near future.

Samuel Sokol is the Middle East Correspondent for the Five Towns Jewish Times and the Business Editor of Tel-Aviv based cultural magazine Eighteen.