After 25 years of campaigns in solidarity with Palestinian journalists, I can be forgiven for choosing my visit to Palestine as my first post on the President’s blog.
Travelling back to Palestine at the head of an IFJ international mission could not come at a more difficult time. Seventeen years after the Oslo accords, the umpteenth set of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians was making news as we entered the country. But we had other concerns, as we struggled to deal with Israel’s ban on the IFJ senior vice-president Younes M’Jahed from entering the Palestinian Occupied Territories as part of the mission. This may well be the first time that an IFJ official has been prevented from visiting the Palestinian affiliate. Could it be that his Moroccan nationality and Arab descent were enough to provoke the Israeli gatekeepers to close the door? So far, as in all Kafkaesque moments, no explanation, just excuses.
When the top leader of a global organisation is prevented from exercising his right of free movement, what of Palestinian journalists? Moving anywhere with the Occupied Territories, one has to confront endless waiting at check points and humiliation after humiliation at the end of rude soldiers, and that’s just if you have all the right papers. Just imagine journalists having to follow a breaking story or attend a union meeting. The Occupied Territories have become fragmented chunks of land separated by scores of roadblocks, criss-crossed by fortified settlements which are no-go areas if you are a Palestinian. Working as a journalist has become a never-ending nightmare. First the Israeli authorities rarely recognise your status as journalist – very few Palestinian, if at all, receive the open-Sesame Government Press Office press card. Worse still, the IFJ International Press Card, recognised throughout the world, has never been accepted by the Israeli authorities, despite years of campaigning by the IFJ.
These are some of the issues the IFJ mission had to catalogue and discuss with the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate. The IFJ leadership decided to send this mission at the invitation of the PJS to check their latest state of affairs – a newly elected leadership after more than a decade, with a mandate to renew membership, modernise the constitution and organise a new congress within a year. So on the one hand, we were confronted with the time-warp features of the occupation – daily attacks and harassment of journalists whenever they try to gather news and pictures, restrictions on their movement and their ability to carry out their job in freedom and security. On the other, we were struck by the determination of Palestinian journalists to build their union, to resist the humiliation and do a professional job.
Meeting the new leadership of the union was an eye opener. Despite the staggering obstacles they face, they attempt to act like any normal union – advance their working programme and the decisions of their congress, process membership applications, build an interactive website, deal with the emergency calls and the minutiae of the needs of their members. At the same time, they still find time to get involved in a workshop on women journalists and talk about new media.
Visits to journalists and media Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem and Jerusalem bring their own litanies of horror stories. According to the union, they catalogued 60 attacks on journalists in three weeks. This was not just a whinge. We were bowled over by their determination to fight back, calling for solidarity from sister unions all over the world to help them resist and make any soldier think twice before hurling the stun grenade or letting fly his rifle butt.
Palestinian journalists and union officials are determined to make the IFJ fight seriously for their freedom of movement of journalists and the recognition of their status as journalists and of the IFJ press cards. One of their most immediate requests is for the IFJ to reopen its safety office to monitor the attacks against photographers and camera crews in particular.
Mission members also met with scores of journalists. Besides the traditional media houses like Al Aqsa newspaper, the media landscape in Palestine is changing fast – new local TVs and radios are mushrooming in most urban conurbations, new media are springing up in many places, all resulting in a profession that is spreading fast despite the impediments of the occupation. The mission visited a state-of-the art media centre funded by the Saudis at the Najah University in Nablus. According to the union, around 300 new journalists graduate every year from the many schools of journalism, including in Gaza. Not many find jobs, but many young people want to be journalists.
As well as complaining about the hurdles raised by the occupying army, Palestinian journalists also brought up the treatment some of them receive at the hand of the Palestinian Authority, something they urged me to raise with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. At our meeting, I was astonished that he immediately acknowledged the heavy-handedness of the Palestinian security forces and, more importantly, apologised and promised he would do everything within his powers to bring this to an end. Of course time will tell.
The only set back was our inability to visit Gaza, where journalists face a worse ordeal. First the Israeli authorities refused to allow us to cross. But when we arranged a video connection to involve journalists from Gaza in a meeting with their colleagues from the West Bank, Hamas made sure that the connection service was cancelled. We find this difficult to understand. While many people of good will try to break the isolation of Gaza, Hamas seems determined to ensure that the journalists remain cut off.
We nevertheless left Palestine full optimism but also with a long shopping list for the IFJ leadership. The ongoing talks between the Israelis and Palestinians may or may not lead anywhere, but we came back determined not to wait for the politicians but do our own bit to give to our Palestinian colleagues the confidence to defend themselves and advance their rights.