Palestininans Press Arafat on Issue on Press Freedom

PRESSURE is mounting on Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat to revoke a ban on a Palestinian newspaper amid widespread public criticism of the move as a violation of press freedom.

``This has the signs of the situation you see in a police state, rather than where the rule of law applies,'' complains Daoud Kuttab, a prominent Palestinian journalist who helped organize a protest against the ban.

Al Nahar, a Palestinian daily paper based in East Jerusalem, closed down indefinitely last Sunday, after Palestinian police banned its distribution in Gaza and Jericho, the areas under autonomous Palestinian rule.

``We got a verbal order from the Palestinian Authority who said we were not to put out the paper,'' says Afif Salem, an editorial writer for the paper.

``The orders came from a number of different people from fatah [the mainstream PLO group founded by Arafat] and the PNA [Palestinian National Authority, which runs the autonomous areas].''

Arafat said on Monday that ``this paper has to respect our laws. They have to get a license first from the Palestinian National Authority.''

But few Palestinians believe that this was the real reason for the paper's closure, since no other Palestinian publication has been issued such a license, and no procedure for requesting a license has been established.

To test the motives for the ban, Al Nahar's proprietors applied on Tuesday to the Palestinian Justice Ministry for a license to distribute the paper.

Paper had cheered agreement

Al Nahar, a pro-Jordanian paper which is subsidized by the Jordanian government, apparently raised Arafat's ire by welcoming last week's agreement between Jordanian King Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Jordan has not commented on the ban.

That non-belligerency accord offered King Hussein a special role in running Muslim shrines in Jerusalem, a provision that infuriated Arafat and other PLO leaders who see East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian state.

``When they found there was opposition [to the ban], they tried to finesse the issue by talking about a license when other publications don't have one,'' says Mr. Kuttab. ``It is so blatant that this is an attempt to stifle one particular paper.''

The closure of Al Nahar left Palestinians with only one daily newspaper, Al Quds, which supports the PLO. Two other Palestinian dailies closed last year for financial reasons.

Hanan Ashrawi, former spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation to Middle East peace talks, and now head of an independent commission monitoring human rights in the autonomous areas, calls the ban on Al Nahar ``a clear violation of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

``We are pursuing the case with the Palestinian National Authority ,'' she says.

The information minister in the Palestinian Authority (PA), Yasser Abd Rabbo, also condemned the ban, saying it was not ordered by his office.

Issues of Al Nahar were confiscated at the entrance to Gaza last week. Palestinian journalists say they believe Arafat himself ordered the action.

Petition to Arafat

Meanwhile, 37 leading Palestinian journalists have signed a petition to Arafat condemning the ban as ``contrary to the democratic basis that we hope to build for our society.''

Representatives of the signatories, however, were unable to present the declaration to the PLO leader himself, who refused to receive them.

Journalists' fears about their freedom to work under the new autonomous Palestinian authorities first surfaced soon after Arafat's arrival in Gaza last month, when he told a visiting delegation of reporters he expected them to defend ``Palestinian national interests'' in their articles.

``I have the impression that people, including Mr. Arafat, who lived so long in the Arab world, have brought with them the symptoms and the style of work of other Arab leaders,'' says Kuttab. ``We have a civil society here that doesn't tolerate that.''

Palestinian reporters, however, say they are cautious in their approach to the new authority. ``I was afraid to ask'' Arafat about the Al Nahar ban, Gazan journalist Taher Shriteh said after the PLO leader gave a press conference on Monday.

``Arafat is tough, and I prefer to be silent ... they could close me down, or cut off my phone,'' added Mr. Shriteh, who won a `Press Freedom Award' last year from the National Press Club in Washington for his work under Israeli occupation.

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