Monday, July 2, 2007

Palestinian journalist seeks asylum in Norway

The situation of journalists in Gaza and the West Bank goes beyond the captivity of the BBC's Alan Johnston. Even reporters for Arab media are subject to coercion, assault and worse. One has now fled to Norway.

A prominent Palestinian journalist from the Gaza Strip has sought political asylum in Norway, Palestinian journalists said Saturday.

Seif al-Din Shahin, the correspondent for the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya news channel network, left the Gaza Strip together with his family, they said, noting that he had received many death threats over the past few months.

Shahin's request has yet to be approved by the Norwegian government. Several other Palestinian journalists are also reported to have fled the Gaza Strip out of fear for their lives.

Earlier this year, masked gunmen set fire to the offices of Al-Arabiya in Gaza City, causing heavy damage to furniture and equipment. Although no group claimed responsibility, Palestinian journalists blamed members of Fatah's armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades.

The group was also responsible for beating Shahin in two separate incidents in 2001 and 2004. The second assault followed Shahin's live broadcast of a rally held on Fatah's anniversary. The report angered Fatah leaders who had instructed Shahin and other journalists to report that tens of thousands had participated.

In 2003 he was arrested by the Palestinian Authority security forces because of his reporting. Al-Arabiya's offices in Ramallah have also been attacked by Fatah gunmen on a number of occasions.

But Fatah is also on the warpath against the other Arabic network, Al-Jazeera.

Muhammad Dahlan, the former Fatah security commander in the Gaza Strip, is said to be spearheading calls for banning Al-Jazeera. Last week he told Palestinian journalists that Al-Jazeera had been doing everything to drive a wedge and encourage schism among Palestinians. "This station has become an organ for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood," he said.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top PLO official closely associated with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, accused Al-Jazeera of endorsing Hamas and its terrorists. "Al-Jazeera is a partner in the crimes that are being perpetrated by the terrorists of Hamas's armed wing against our people," he said.

Muhammad Hourani, a senior Fatah operative in the Gaza Strip, said Al-Jazeera was no longer an independent and objective source for news. "They are a party to the conflict [between Hamas and Fatah]," he said. He said that Al-Jazeera had refused to cover atrocities committed by Hamas in the Gaza Strip over the past few weeks and was providing a platform for Fatah's enemies.

It doesn't seem to have occurred to the folks in Fatah that they might not look as bad on TV if they (a) hadn't collapsed militarily in Gaza in the face of Hamas pressure and (b) hadn't lost the faith and trust of the Palestinian rank-and-file through corruption and high-handedness.

A key requirement for a functioning democracy is a free press that can shine a light on government malfeasance, corruption and incompetence. Doesn't sound like that's in the cards for the Palestinian Authority anytime in the foreseeable future.

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