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In Gaza, No Tradition Of A Free Press

(AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
In the ongoing struggle between Fatah and Hamas, USA Today yesterday offered a look at the challenges the Palestinian media faces in covering the conflict -- namely, death threats. The owner of a Gaza-based radio station and other Palestinian journalists told the paper that Hamas is "trying to control news coverage" using tactics such as death threats as well as raids on radio and television stations upon those journalists or outlets that are perceived as harboring biases against Hamas. According to USA Today: "Intimidation tactics compelled some media outlets, such as al-Hurriya, to suspend news coverage. Frightened columnists put down their pens. Hazem Abu Shanab, a communications lecturer at Gaza's Al Azhar University, stopped writing his column for Al-Hayat Al-Jadida and other newspapers."

Palestinian media, as USA Today notes, is not known for its "tradition of independence. Before the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994, Palestinian news outlets were subject to Israeli censorship. When Palestinian — and Fatah — leader Yasser Arafat returned from exile in 1994, after the Oslo peace accords with Israel, he used government-run outlets such as Palestine TV to mold coverage. He jailed dozens of journalists and dissidents who criticized his rule or the accords with Israel. Arafat died in 2004."

CBS News correspondent Sheila MacVicar, who is currently on assignment in Gaza, offered us some more context for this story.

"It's not just Hamas that is issuing threats," she told me in an e-mail. "There is no tradition of free press here, and limited support for the same (thus, the outside Arab-language voices, like Al Jazeera, are very important.) Civil society as we understand it is, in Gaza, now virtually non-existent. The law is more likely to be administered by clan or family councils than by any element of the state. The same is true for media. Very few adults are without political affiliation (there are some, but not very many) and this is an extreme turf war. Arafat also used to shun, punish, threaten and reward journalists as they went in and out of favor."