Palestinian TV's First Broadcasts Boost People's Ire, Arafat's Clout
RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — The reporter crouched behind a concrete barrier, head between his knees, microphone clutched to his face.
Showers of concrete bits rained all around him from Israeli Army bullets striking the barrier above his head. The cameraman lay on his chest a few feet away, trying to steady the camera. All around, Palestinian police and youths clutching stones scurried to return fire.
During last month's Israeli-Palestinian violence, scenes like these were beamed live into Palestinian homes. For the first time, residents watched battles with the Israeli Army on their own TV stations - stations that are the product of the autonomy granted in the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
Palestinians saw everything from the dramatic street battles to hospital wards with wounded Palestinian youths to archival footage of rousing speeches by PLO leader Yasser Arafat.
These images - bearing witness to the power of television - played a pivotal role in inciting and then quelling the violence, analysts say. The drama of the images united Palestinians in a way they haven't been before, giving Palestinian leaders new power and changing the equation for any future Israeli-Palestinian clashes.
Since the Palestinian Authority (PA) assumed control of Gaza and part of the West Bank 2-1/2 years ago, several small private radio and television stations, a handful of newspapers, and PA-run TV and radio stations have opened.
In the old days...
Before the Palestinian media's advent, West Bankers relied on Jordan's media. But the Jordanian government, mindful of the sentiments of the 65 percent of its population who are Palestinian refugees, was careful to play down clashes with Israel, says a Palestinian producer a major American TV network.
The only other choice was the Israeli media, which also consistently downplayed events. Often, a cryptic call for blood donors at a certain hospital would be the only hint Palestinians had of a serious clash in another part of the West Bank or Gaza.
Throughout the 1987-94 intifadah, or uprising, Jordanian or Israeli media were the only choices, says Ghassan Khatib, director of a Palestinian press service called the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center. But this time it was different. The dramatic footage stirred thousands more people to take to the streets than might have otherwise, Mr. Khatib says.
What made the Palestinian media's coverage so gripping was "these journalists, they were veterans of the intifadah. They were fearless. It never occurred to them but to report from the middle of it all," says the American network producer. "You would never turn on your TV in America and see anything like that," he says.
The media played another kind of role: providing locations of clashes, closed roads, or hospitals the wounded were being taken to. "This was a radical change from the isolation that activists always worked in before," Khatib adds.
A new tool for Arafat
Mr. Arafat was able to harness the media's power to control the conflict, many observers say. The agenda was coming from Mr. Arafat's office in Gaza, says Khatib. His employees in the state-controlled media were carefully cued: When he wanted a new intifadah, the stations showed blood and heroism. When Arafat deemed it time for calm, Khatib says, the message was suddenly conciliatory, talking of Palestinian commitment to a nonviolent solution.
The PA denies the charge that it controlled the media. "We did not censor anything or control anything," says Mutawaqil Taha, director of the PA Ministry of Information.
"We have a lot of media here, many stations," he says, "Arafat couldn't possibly interfere." But many Palestinians and Israelis aren't convinced.
Even the independent stations, over which Arafat has no direct control, say the PA influenced their coverage.
"On the third day, [the PA] wanted to change the tone all of a sudden, because the Israelis figured out the kind of influence we could have," recalls Amr Nazzal, owner of Al-Watan (The Homeland) television, which broadcast some of the most gripping footage.
"And so they showed up at our door, police with an order from the [Arafat-appointed] governor, and shut us down. And the police told us that the Israeli army told them, shut those people down or we will shoot them off the air."
The PA, Mr. Nazzal believes, also wanted the station shut down. When Arafat ordered Palestinian police to stop shooting at Israeli soldiers and quell the street protests, "They didn't want the people to see their own police in that role. They were determined those pictures wouldn't get out."
Now Nazzal has to show all political material to the PA before he can broadcast it.
But regardless of how directly in control Arafat was, the emergence of the new media is a new bargaining chip for him to use in dealing with the Israelis.
Arafat is "precisely aware" of just how powerful a new weapon he has and will indeed be using it in coming developments, Khatib says. Khatib notes that the Israelis were very aware of the role the Palestinian media were playing in the clashes. In fact, it was one of the first subjects they brought up when talks resumed, complaining the PA had allowed "inciteful" material to be broadcast.
"If the situation here reaches a more critical stage," says Khatib of any future conflict, "I expect Israel will insist the PA shut the radio and TV down"