An Interview with
Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo

Khaled Abu Aker: Maybe we can start, Mr. Abed Rabbo, with the question: How do you see the role of the media in the peace process?

Yasser Abed Rabbo: Talking about the media means talking about what the role of politics should be in the peace process. The media depends upon not only the rules that are adopted in each country, the laws that control and direct the media and the culture of the country. Mostly I think it depends upon the approach of the politicians and the political leadership as to how they look at the role of the media. I think, on the Israeli side, that the media is now largely regarded by Netanyahu as a way to deceive public opinion. He believes that public opinion can easily be directed and deceived and gradually brought under his influence. This is maybe part of what he considers his American experience as regards the role of the media, in general, in shaping political images. I think, on the Israeli side, the media, these days, is playing - through the impact of the present political leadership - a very negative role in the peace process.

Khaled Abu Aker: How about the Palestinian experience?

Danny Rubinstein: You know, in Israel, many people criticize the Palestinian media. Only recently, I heard there was some kind of protest from Israel about an article that was published in Al-Hayat Al-Jadeedah denying the Holocaust.

Amiram Goldblum: The impression of the Israeli side is that the Palestinian media are media of state information. The state has not been finally formed, but the media are, in one way or another, mobilized for the cause of the formation of the state, for the creation of the Palestinian state. I would like you to comment on this aspect.

Yasser Abed Rabbo: We do not deny that there is a common cause among all the sectors of Palestinian society and all the institutions in Palestinian society - including media institutions - with the Palestinian National Authority. We have the same cause: attaining our own independence, our self-determination, and building a state. But if you are referring to interference of the state in directing the media or telling them what they should and should not do, I think there is a lot of exaggeration there. Even on our TV and our broadcasting stations, which are controlled by the state, the TV takes a position of criticizing different aspects of our life. And there is no censorship of the TV at all, by the way. On TV you can express yourself on political, economic, social matters, about any issue you would like.

Danny Rubinstein: What is your position as Minister of Information?

Yasser Abed Rabbo: I can tell you our concept, our policy towards the media. There are in the country certain negative influences from factors that do not like the Palestinian media to be free to talk, to explain, to create open relations with the society. But there also is a strong trend which insists that we want a media that can compete with the Israeli media, a media that the people will listen to before listening to any other station or looking at the news on other TV stations. That is the policy we are adopting. I am very pragmatic and realistic. I do not think that we can move everything in one leap. I am fighting for independent broadcasting stations and independent TV stations, and not only a government-owned broadcasting and TV station.

Danny Rubinstein: For total freedom of expression?

Yasser Abed Rabbo: There were some violations against this in the first year after our establishment. Nowadays the violations are much less than before. I receive some complaints, but we deal with them immediately. I do not say we have reached the ideal. We are in a transitional process. We are in the midst of a struggle in our society and in our institutions about the form of social and political life we want to realize. What is delaying this struggle is that we have not resolved the political conflict with Israel. Everything is judged by the question: Does this help our struggle for national freedom? Sometimes I say, You are right. It does not help.

Danny Rubinstein: I write almost every week about the meetings of the Palestinian leadership, and there are some clashes in those meetings. In most cases, I do not see it in the Palestinian papers. For instance, there was a big clash in June 1998 between Faisal Husseini and Yasser Arafat about Jerusalem. I wrote all the details in my paper, Ha'aretz, because people from the leadership told me the whole story, but I didn't find anything in the Palestinian media. Even after publishing my story, nobody copied it on the Palestinian side. Do you think this is okay? Do you think that in the future it will get better?

Yasser Abed Rabbo: Perhaps we do not have the so-called ideal freedom of expression to the extent, for example, of talking about the quarrels and differences in our Cabinet. But this does not mean that our differences are not explained and revealed to the public. All the discussions in the Legislative Council are open to the public and to the media. Ministers can go to the cameras and say whatever they like. So we have, I think, a very important degree of freedom of expression. Maybe it is not the Israeli style. Maybe it is not the Western style. Maybe it is not the American style. But it is, I believe, a style that is promising for the future in this transitional period.

Danny Rubinstein: If you put it in the context of the Arab world, where are you?

Yasser Abed Rabbo: Concerning the Arab world, we are No. 1. Do you have, in the Arab world, every minister going, after the meetings, to the TV cameras? Of course you do not. But I do not want to compare us with anybody, not the Israeli model, nor the Arab model. Our situation is not like any other situation. We are a government and not a government. We are a state and not a state. We are responsible leaders, yet our responsibilities are very limited due to the transitional character of our situation.
That is why some limitations should be understood. I believe I would take a position concerning certain issues - political, social, cultural, etc. - in a different manner if we were independent. But I cannot raise these issues today. Do you think I like the appearance of thousands of our girls and women walking with all these veils over their heads under this sun, sweating? I know that 99 percent of them do not want this. Do you think I do not want to fight against it? But do you think I can raise this issue these days when we have the struggle over the peace process? It is impossible. Family life, the relations between men and women, the status of women, the future of the new generations, if there is a divorce in a family, what will happen to that family? What kind of equality is there? The relations between trade unions and workers. All these are basic issues which we cannot approach now, frankly speaking, because the process of winning independence is still not resolved. I think that freedom of expression is important, but we cannot reach the standard we want, as long as we are not a free people. Freedom of expression is the freedom of different sections of society and their representatives to express their points of view, for the sake of the development of the whole society. I gave an example of women, and how, in our situation now, I cannot raise this issue. I am secular. I am not religious. Some traditions relate not to religion, but to the backwardness of the society.

Khaled Abu Aker: You took a pioneering position regarding opening local TV stations.

Yasser Abed Rabbo: We have 37 now and we are licensing more, from the local communities. They are independent. They go to the Ministry of Economy and register there as a company.

Khaled Abu Aker: But you are the one who gives the green light.

Yasser Abed Rabbo: We have rules if they register as a company. They go to the Ministry of Communication and get a frequency, then they come to us and in five minutes we give them a license from the Ministry of Information. We do not interfere with their work at all. Sometimes we help them with programming, because they are still poor companies. We are poor as well, but we run workshops and training programs for them, with the aid of universities, because they lack experience.

Danny Rubinstein: So they live from advertisements?

Yasser Abed Rabbo: Yes. It is a business. This is a very important factor in our lives. Now we have popular local TV in Hebron, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem and so on. The national TV cannot deal with the internal problems of every city, every region, every village.
We have to develop economically and at the same time, in parallel, develop culturally. How can I talk about economic development when we did not have in the past a factory to bottle water or orange juice? And how can I talk about the development of a society when we are in a country where we didn't have one theater hall?

Khaled Abu Aker: One local TV station in Bethlehem, for example, was shut down. We went to look for who issued the order and we couldn't find who it was.

Yasser Abed Rabbo: Me too.

Khaled Abu Aker: Is it a one-man decision?

Yasser Abed Rabbo: The next day I wrote a clear paper to the governor of Bethlehem about reopening the station. It took me one month to get the right answer. This is true.

Khaled Abu Aker: Our Israeli colleagues here give me the impression that they were surprised to hear about local Palestinian TV and radio. Their only impression is negative.

Yasser Abed Rabbo: Israelis, even the most dovish, the most pacifist, the best persons in Israel, know very little about us. This is a problem.

Danny Rubinstein: Are you saying that if, in your society, say half the population does not have the freedom to choose whom to marry, don't expect that tomorrow morning they will have the freedom of -

Yasser Abed Rabbo: I am not saying this, but I think there is interaction between things. I believe we should enjoy the best freedom of speech even if a certain percentage of women do not have the freedom of whom to marry. To a certain extent, even most of the women in veils can say we want this man or we do not want this man. I believe we need a total development of this society. I cannot say that, overnight, the people will feel the necessity for this. What protects freedom of speech? When the people feel the necessity for it as part of their life. To reach that stage, we need not only the direct laws of freedom of speech, but the economic, cultural and social laws that regulate different aspects of our life.

Danny Rubinstein: In civil rights.

Yasser Abed Rabbo: In civil rights. The nightmare, for me, is to see a girl of 15 or 16 years who is married -

Danny Rubinstein: To an old man.

Yasser Abed Rabbo: Even to a young man, because after five or six years, when she is in her early 20s, she has five or six children. She will do nothing in her life except feed them and clean for them and raise them. And I know many of them are really talented. In the results of the exams this week, the first ten in the general matriculation were girls. This is the second year I have seen this. I believe, if there is no development in cultural life, there is no development in freedom of speech. Now, the number of books sold in our bookstores is humiliating for me, and even the percentage of people who attend the public library. For two or three generations under occupation, people did not have the chance to buy books at cheap prices. They did not have access to libraries with books published in the Arab world and outside. They don't know many of their own writers.

Khaled Abu Aker: What would you like to see in the Israeli press?

Yasser Abed Rabbo: I think the Israeli press is giving a very deceptive image of us to the Israeli public. First of all, they do not deal with us unless there is a security or political problem. Otherwise, they do not deal with news of Palestinian society and news of Palestinians. Besides that, some try to be positive, but behind the positive manner, I feel a smell of - I am sorry to say - racism. Sometimes they introduce a Palestinian character and imply, Look; among all these blacks we have a nice guy. Look at him. I laugh at it all the time on Israeli TV. They introduce Ahmad Tibi as a character, a Palestinian character, who is doing his best to become an Israeli Jew. They like him because he speaks Hebrew very nicely. He is like us Israelis. Not because he has his own special characteristics, no, but because he is abandoning his characteristics for ours.
I believe the main problem is that most of the Israeli media people do not know anything about our life. They are not interested in it. And they do not show Israeli public opinion how these very close neighbors - we are living in the same house - how they live, what are their real problems and what are their aspirations.
They made a big story about Edward Said's book which was confiscated in a library in Ramallah. I checked that. I went to the library and they said, Yes, one stupid local officer here in the police said, What is this book that is attacking Arafat and attacking peace and Oslo? You should not sell it. So the owner took it off the shelves and they made a big story out of it. But they did not print that in every book fair after that, I personally was interested in taking piles of Edward Said's book, the same book, and putting them on the shelves and asking everybody to publicicize that we have the books of Edward Said and can buy them. They didn't say anything about that and the same approach was adopted by the Western media stationed in Jerusalem.
Sometimes we are stereotyped, and this has become a tradition in the Israeli media. We were stereotyped before 1967. We were stereotyped after 1967 as fedayeen with kaffiyehs and so on, and bombs and explosives. We were stereotyped after Oslo as a society which is - I don't know - closed, not moving, and we have some corrupt people. Behind the stereotype, the deeper issue that should be dealt with is nationalistic hatred, the seed of the stereotype. I know that the Jew was also stereotyped in our media. A Jew is one single image.

Danny Rubinstein: Or Zionist.

Amiram Goldblum: Settlers, soldiers. We, in the peace camp, also stereotype the settlers.

Yasser Abed Rabbo: I would say the Jew, not the Zionist, is the stereotype because maybe the ordinary person does not understand the difference between Jew and Zionist. He knows the Jew as a human being, but stereotyped. But "Zionist" is a little bit more political and sophisticated. So the Jew was stereotyped. But we are trying, through mutual contacts, to do something to change this image. Maybe we have a better chance than the Israelis because we have daily envoys and messengers in the hundreds and thousands of people, workers, going into Israeli society. They know what is the meaning of an Israeli Jew. They know there are good and there are bad, decent and not decent, like everywhere in the world. Like life.

Amiram Goldblum: Your open vision of media and of culture is really very encouraging. But you know, in Israel, when the state was created, all the media - even many years after the state was created - were still held in the hands of Ben-Gurion who had direct control of Kol Yisrael (Israel Radio) until the mid-1960s, I believe.
When I started working in Israel Radio in 1970, ministers would still call the office of the editor of the news and tell him, Put this in or take this off the news. There was a central role of censorship.
Now I am wondering, with all that you have told us: I hear one open vision from you, and, on the other hand, Khaled describes officers here and there who are doing the closings. Is there official censorship, or a sort of a diffuse censorship perpetrated by local authorities, local governors, local military?

Yasser Abed Rabbo: There is no direct censorship, believe me.

Amiram Goldblum: Not on movies, books, theater, nothing?

Yasser Abed Rabbo: No. No direct censorship. But I tell you frankly, there is censorship of backwardness. After 30 years of Israeli control and censorship, and the strangling of our freedom, we want to build a new life.