Free speech in Arafat's Gaza: no lights, no camera.

Qassem Ali is ready to roll. Here at Ramattan Studios overlooking the skyward sprawl of Gaza and the Mediterranean, he has the camera crews, the latest editing equipment, and a soundproof studio.

But the "On Air" sign remains dark. Since last year, Mr. Ali has been trying to get permission from the Palestinian Authority to open an independent television station.

And so far, the show has not gone on. A host of hurdles stands in the way of what would be Gaza's first commercial TV channel. Ali says it's because his channel could become a competitor to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's version of state-run television: the Palestinian Broadcast Corp. (PBC) and its new spin-off, the Palestinian Satellite Channel (PSC).

But beyond competition, observers say, denying a license to broadcast is one more instance of the Palestinian Authority's (PA) firm control over free speech.

"Everyone said, 'You won't get permission because there is an unwritten law.' If there's an unwritten law, then we have to fight it," says Ali, who once fought the Israeli occupation, then reported on the Palestinian intifadah (uprising).

Ali says his focus is now on social issues. Among the projects Ramattan is currently producing are documentaries on child abuse and working women. His vision of the new channel, he says, would be a forum for airing a variety of views and serious treatment of domestic issues ignored by the PBC.

"Professionally, they're not up to my standards," says Ali. "I want to go to the heart of the cultural issues and the political issues. We have tribal rivalries and arranged marriages. The level of education here is terrible, healthcare is terrible. There are serious problems here and you don't solve them simply by having an independent state."

The chief of Palestinian state-run television, Hisham Makki, who works one floor below Mr. Arafat's office is blunt. "I am doing everything in my power to prevent another channel from broadcasting," says Mr. Makki, who speaks in forceful and succinct sentences.

It's a different story, however, in the West Bank, where some 30 channels, most of them with only local service, currently operate. Many say that's because Arafat wields much more authority in Gaza - where the PA has jurisdiction over most of the land - than in the West Bank, which is still comprised of self-ruled Palestinian islands surrounded by Israeli-controlled territory. The resulting legal ambiguities have given some stations a window to operate. But perhaps not indefinitely, Makki says.

"Gaza is too small for another station. All the others in the West Bank can go on talking, but I don't know how long they will continue, because you can watch PBC all over and you can watch PSC all over the world," Makki says.

Makki, who has three decades of experience at state television stations in the Arab world, says the PBC is not afraid to touch on issues like corruption and the question of who will succeed Arafat.

"We are free to do whatever we like and nobody is in charge of us except for the president," says Makki. "Well, not really in charge, he just gives us his opinion and helps us evaluate the programs."

Whether an independent channel should also have a chance to evaluate things, he says, it's up to the government. But, casting doubt on Ramattan's financial backers, he adds: "If the money were clean and pure and we didn't have to wash it again, and it were for the benefit of the Palestinian people, then we would support it."

The clock strikes midday, and Makki flips his attention to the big-screen TV at the other end of the room. The broadcast opens its part-time day with the national anthem and a picture of a somber Arafat saluting as a superimposed Palestinian flag flutters over his image.

"We do criticize the Authority. The only one who cannot be criticized, like the queen in England, is President Arafat, because he is our national emblem."

Tawfeek Abu Shomar, an official at the Ministry of Information says that the problem for issuing licenses is a lack of qualified applicants. Moreover, he says, years of Israeli repression possibly intimidated prospective applicants from seeking licenses to operate. He says three applicants withdrew their applications.

Ramattan's application, he says, has now been approved by his ministry, but must next gain authorization from the Ministry of Interior as well as the Ministry of Communication.

"No one yet has received a license to operate, but it's a mistake to say we don't want this in Palestine," says Mr. Abu Shomar. "The Interior Ministry has to check where the money comes from, because this issue enters into espionage." One concern, he says, is that money from Iran could fund an Islamic fundamentalist channel, as the Hizbullah does in Lebanon.

Other attempts to air different points of view, however, have had little success. Daoud Kuttab, a respected journalist who was contracted to broadcast the meetings of the Palestinian Legislative Council, tried to give Palestinians a sense of the lively debate going on among their elected officials.

But last year he was arrested by PA police and held for several days, after which the broadcasts were discontinued. Now, critics say, Palestinians watch anything but PBC, which people on the street quietly describe as boring.

"If you want to know what is happening in Gaza, you watch the BBC, Israeli TV, or Al-Jazeera," says Dr. Iyad Serraj, a human rights activist, referring to the Qatar-based television station making waves in the Middle East as a sort of Arab CNN with unprecedentedly hard-hitting reporting.

Mr. Serraj has also invested in Ramattan because he thinks Palestinians need a chance to hear something other than the party line.

"It's monopolization of freedom of expression. Critical debates in the community are not shown, certain people are not shown. When they do certain programs, they are restricted by their mandate and by the censorship," says Serraj. "[Makki] runs a typical Arab propaganda TV station and he's adamant about not allowing anything else to open in Gaza, which is absolutely contrary to the spirit of democratization."

Ali says he hasn't given up hope because he hasn't been rejected yet. "I'll continue fighting to have a television station in Gaza, even if it take two or three years. We as Gazans have started to perceive ourselves as political animals, as the world perceives us, and I want Gazans to see themselves as people again."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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