Freedom of the Press, PA Style

The confidence of journalists who have traditionally covered the news with impunity find they are no longer free to do so - at least, not in Gaza.

Hana Levi Julian ,

Foreign journalists have often become pawns in the game of "chicken" often played out between Arab terrorists and their international opponents, but local reporters are usually considered off-limits.

Not so in Palestinian Authority-controlled Gaza, where local reporters are beginning to panic, with good reason.

The release this week of British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) journalist Alan Johnston after four months of captivity by Gaza terrorists has not changed the dangerous situation in which Gaza journalists find themselves.

According to a report in Newsweek magazine, more than 30 local journalists were attacked last month in Hamas-controlled Gaza and in Fatah-controlled Judea and Samaria. Three have been killed so far this year.

The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (Mada) warned Hamas and Fatah officials in a recent statement to “order their armed forces to stop attacks on journalists and media institutions.”

Gaza journalists are forced to deal with conditions that will inevitably affect the way they cover stories in the region, said the organization. “Mada center is expressing [its] serious concern over the deteriorating situation in the Palestinian arena in general and the state of media freedoms in particular….”

The organization also had words of warning for PA Arab journalists to “avoid [being] aligned to a party at the expense of another and the need to be objective and impartial in their professional work… [and] commit to professional standards.”

One month ago, Arab terrorists stormed the offices of the Palmedia news agency offices in Gaza City, shooting in the air and taking away its computer and transmission equipment.

No Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces intervened, although security headquarters are located within 60 yards of the media office, according to the Reporters without Borders organization. Twenty journalists were in the offices at the time, but no one was injured.

In April, PA police officers attacked Arab journalists who were participating in a rally for Johnston’s release near the PA Legislative Council building in Gaza. Several of the journalists were injured by police, who used rifles to push them away, threatening to shoot them if they returned to the area.

Foreign Journalists: Gaza ‘No Go’ Zone
Meanwhile, Gaza has been unofficially declared a “no go” zone among foreign journalists, who say kidnappings and attacks on reporters have gone too far, and PA officials not far enough.

Foreign journalists are becoming an increasingly endangered species, continuing to quietly stream out of Gaza in recent months as the risk of life-threatening attacks and kidnappings skyrockets. BBC reporter Alan Johnston was the last holdout to maintain a full-time bureau office in Gaza City. It was outside that office that he was kidnapped at gunpoint on March 12. Johnston was finally released this week, almost four months after his abduction.

The continuing saga has left the Gaza area without foreign journalists and is damaging the reputation of the Palestinian Authority, according to Simon McGregor-Wood of ABC News, Chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem. "Gaza for most of the foreign press corps has become a no-go zone,” said McGregor-Wood.

A number of network news reporters have been kidnapped within the past year. Most were released immediately; an exception was last summer’s kidnapping of two Fox News journalists. Sixty-year-old American Steve Centanni and his 36-year-old cameraman Olaf Wiig of New Zealand were held for two weeks by a Hamas-linked group called the Holy Jihad Brigades.

Associated Press photographer Emiliio Morenatti, an Italian national, was kidnapped in October 2006, also in Gaza City and released unharmed 15 hours later.

The most recent occurrence prior to Johnston’s abduction involved a 50-year-old Peruvian photographer with the French news agency Agence France Presse (AFP). Jaime Razuri was abducted by masked gunmen in January and released a week later.