On an evening in March of 2003, nearly three years after the start of the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule (known as Intifada), journalists in a TV station in the Palestinian city of Nablus were caught in the fierce and bloody Intifada warfare.
During a TV show about resistance during the Intifada, the station’s headquarters was attacked by a group of six masked men carrying rifles and AK47s.
As it was later revealed, TV stations in Ramallah and Bethlehem and a print newsroom in the Gaza Strip were also attacked.
Five years later, the situation remains challenging for journalists in the Palestinian territories, where two warring governments now rule – Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Fatah in the West Bank, according to Nablus TV station’s general director Saleem Swaidan.
Swaidan, who recently took part in a discussion in Washington, D.C., on the current media environment in the Middle East and North Africa, explained that “there is no understanding of a free and honest press” among militant factions. “There is the bad idea,” he added, “that says ‘if you are not with me, you are against me’.”
Nablus TV is one of ten local independent TV stations in major cities in the West Bank and Gaza that, along with ten radio stations, make up the Ma’an network. The goal of the network, which means ‘together’ in Arabic, is to achieve “global media standards and [provide] Palestinian people with reliable local and regional information,” according to its Web site.
The Ma’an network’s activities include television, video, and radio production, and an online news agency, providing around-the-clock coverage of events in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and training courses for Palestinian journalists and media personnel.
Though both Fatah and Hamas have tried to bring Swaidan and his Nablus crew to their side, Swaidan said the network has remained independent since its inception in 2002. “I am [neither] with you, [nor] with the other side,” Swaidan said.
As a result of their independence, in recent years, Swaidan said, his reporters have continually been harassed and attacked, including by the Israeli military forces who once “hacked the station’s frequency waves, broadcasting Israeli propaganda programs instead,” Swaidan mentioned.
At the discussion, sponsored by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) at the headquarters of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), panelists agreed that journalists and media workers in the entire region continue to face tremendous challenges.
“There is no Arab country where we have free media,” said Hisham Milhim, the Washington Bureau Chief of the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya news network. “Journalists are oppressed and killed by governments as well as crazy opposition groups,” he said.
However, Milhim said, the media in that region of the world “is freer today” than it once was.
According to Laith Kubba, former Iraqi government spokesperson and senior director for the MENA Program at NED, the increased freedom can be credited to technological advancements.
Now, with the advent of blogs, internet forums and – 250 – satellite channels, “governments in the Middle East cannot fully control” the population as they once could, Kubba said.
Arab governments have, however, begun to use different means to control the press, according to panelists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalist’s (CPJ) annual report, Attacks on the Press 2007, “Arab governments have … manipulated the media reform process,” as well as “built new strategies to contain the assertive journalists who have emerged over the last decade in countries such as Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.”
Despite the difficulties, Swaidan is encouraged by the support he has seen for the independent media. In 2003, “after our station was attacked,” he said, “we were visited by hundreds of people showing support.”
“We are influential in the local community,” he said.
For more information, go to http://www.maannet.org/.