Palestine’s Media Landscape: An Overview
Freedom of Expression
Palestine can trace its mass media roots back to the Ottoman era (1876-1914), with Ottoman rulers publishing a newspaper in Jerusalem in 1876. However, the first newspaper owned by Palestinians themselves was Filastin, founded in 1911 by the cousins Issa and Daoud el-Issa. The newspaper was a prominent early expression of Palestinian national identity and was closed down firstly by the Ottomans and then again briefly during the British Mandate for Palestine. British rulers tolerated private newspapers but also imposed the 1933 Publications Law, allowing for the closure of press outlets that might endanger public order, and in 1945, further legislation permitted direct censorship.
In 1936, Palestine’s first radio service was introduced, broadcasting in Arabic from Jerusalem and largely propagandizing the British Mandate’s agenda. By the 1950s, there were four Palestinian newspapers operating in the West Bank, by this time annexed by Jordan – Filastin, al-Manar, al-Difaa and al-Jihad (the latter two merged in 1951 to become al-Quds). These were subject to restrictive Jordanian press regulations that banned content deemed threatening to the unity or security of the Jordanian state. Meanwhile, in the Gaza Strip, several newspapers were established under the Egyptian administration, including al-Tahrir in 1958.
Two Arabic-language newspapers were also published to cater for the Palestinian population in Israel, with al-Ittihad founded in 1944 and al-Yawm in 1948. Following the 1967 Six Day War, Palestinian newspapers in the West Bank and Gaza were closed down, although al-Ittihad and al-Yawn continued to publish. In 1968, Palestinian Mahmoud Abu Zalaf managed to secure an Israeli license to re-publish al-Quds in East Jerusalem. This set the stage for a series of Palestinian daily and weekly newspapers to be published from Jerusalem over the next two decades. In 1972, the PLO launched Radio Palestine, based in Cairo, yet domestic audiovisual broadcasting did not emerge until the 1990s, as the Israeli authorities continued to deny any Palestinian publication, radio station or television channel to operate outside of Jerusalem until the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Following the Oslo Accords a new surge of newspapers began publishing across Palestine, in accordance with the 1995 Press Law. The Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) was established in 1994, and radio programming went on air from Jericho in the same year. Television broadcasts began in 1996, and by the early 2000s, the PBC administered two terrestrial channels and a satellite station. The media environment continued to grow in the 21st century. By 2010, there were 31 private television channels and 70 radio stations in the West Bank and Gaza.
The internet was first introduced in Palestine in 1996, however infrastructure equipment must pass through Israel, which has been accused of deliberately limiting bandwidth and connection speeds. Nevertheless, internet penetration is relatively high and online outlets now form an important part of the Palestinian media landscape.
Freedom of Expression
The Palestinian Basic Law, established in 2002, guarantees freedom of expression and a free press, and outlaws censorship. However, this law is often usurped by other legislation such as the 1995 Press and Publications Law that stipulates published content must not damage national unity or contravene national morals. Moreover, the Palestinian media environment is not conducive to freedom of expression.
It is dominated by partisan reporting and undue influence from the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, in addition to external interference from Israel. It is ranked 132nd in Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 World Press Freedom Index.
Both in the West Bank and Gaza, ruling authorities maintain close control over the content that is produced. The PA is responsible for administering television and radio licenses in the West Bank, and has a longstanding history of closing down stations that it has deemed ‘critical of the Palestinian leadership’. Defamation also remains a criminal offence, with media figures routinely prosecuted. Hamas has introduced a registration system in Gaza that requires all journalists and broadcasters to undergo accreditation before operating.
The Israeli military is also able to regulate Palestine’s media output by enacting anti-incitement procedures against outspoken journalists. AFP estimates that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) closed down six Palestinian radio and television outlets between October 2015 and October 2016.
The Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) annually reports on the number of ‘press freedom violations’ committed in Palestine. In the first half of 2016, MADA monitored 198 media violations, 67 per cent of which were perpetrated by Israel. Of the remaining violations, 66 per cent were committed by the PA and 34 per cent by Hamas.
Israel’s violations include the ‘administrative detention’ of 26 Palestinian journalists, many of whom are being held without formal charges. The IDF also prevented media coverage of protests near the Israeli West Bank barrier by annexing the area as a ‘military zone’. The PA also actively obstructs the coverage of protests. In March 2017, security forces beat journalists reporting on an anti-Israel demonstration in Ramallah. In Gaza, Human Rights Watch reported that Hamas unlawfully detained an activist in 2016 after he criticized the government, as well as two journalists who had reported on instances of poverty and medical failings in the area.
Journalists, activists and bloggers operating online are also subject to constant monitoring and intimidation. Israel has a dedicated unit monitoring Palestinian social media posts. In March 2016 alone, 148 Palestinians were arrested by Israeli forces for ‘inciting violence on Facebook’. Later in the same year, the PA temporarily imprisoned student Kifah Quzmar after he labelled the ruling authorities ‘rotten’ in a Facebook post.
Television is the most popular news medium in Palestine, however the majority of viewers opt for pan-Arab broadcasting, predominantly from the Gulf states, at the expense of domestic channels. A 2010 survey conducted by Near East Consulting concluded that the most watched television channels in Palestine were al-Jazeera (31 per cent), Palestine TV (18 per cent), MBC (18 per cent), al-Arabiya (7.5 per cent) and Abu Dhabi TV (5 per cent).
Domestic channels are dominated by partisan affiliation. Between 2007 and 2014, Hamas prevented all PBC operations in Gaza, while the PA closed down Hamas-affiliated broadcast offices in the West Bank. The most significant domestic broadcasters are as follows:
There are dozens of radio stations in Palestine, but the most popular are affiliated with the PA and Hamas. Private stations with a more independent slant also operate, mostly in the West Bank. The most significant are as follows:
The most popular newspapers in Palestine are either operated by or closely affiliated with the PA or Hamas, reflecting the wider media environment. Between 2007 and 2014, the distribution of the pro-Hamas Felasteen and al-Resaleh was prohibited in the West Bank, and the circulation of al-Quds, a-Ayyam and al-Hayat al-Jadida was banned in Gaza. The 2014 al-Shate Agreement between Fatah and Hamas eventually removed these restrictions. The most significant publications are as follows:
Social media is becoming increasingly important as a platform for Palestinians to access news and contribute their own footage and stories. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been used extensively by Palestinians since the 2006 Gaza blockade to upload footage of Israeli attacks. The case of Farah Baker, who, aged 16, live-tweeted the 2014 Israeli attacks of Gaza to over 200,000 followers, is one the most notable examples.
Social media has also been harnessed by the Palestinian ruling authorities, with Hamas releasing a series of professionally edited YouTube videos in the run up to the 2016 municipal elections, alongside a ‘thank you, Hamas’ hashtag campaign on Twitter. Pro-Fatah activists responded by hijacking the hashtag campaign, ironically juxtaposing the phrase ‘thank you, Hamas’ alongside images and footage of Israeli air strikes.
In the West Bank, websites are not officially censored but online publications can be shut down by the security authorities if they are believed to have violated Palestinian laws. The most striking example of this came in April 2012, when the PA closed eight news websites including the popular Amad Media, Firas Press, Filistin Beitna and Milad, after they published stories critical of President Mahmoud Abbas. The closures sparked outrage and protests and ultimately led to the resignation of the PA minister of communications, and all eight websites were reinstated by May 2012.
In Gaza, the Hamas minister of communications has stated that online publications or blogs are tolerated but “should not break the law”, and the online environment is generally more restrictive than in the West Bank.
However, the internet has provided an opportunity for Palestinian news outlets to operate with a greater degree of independence from the influence of the ruling authorities. The Maan News Agency, established in 2005 by the Maan Network Bethlehem with a second office in Gaza, is a notable case study. The agency is run by Raed Othman and was founded to provide a more independent take on Palestinian politics and current affairs. As a result, it has fallen foul of the PA and Hamas on several occasions, most recently in 2013, when Hamas seized its Gaza office for four months on charges of ‘fabricating news’. The Maan Network also operates a television channel and radio station.
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