For a while before the Madrid peace conference, the Palestinian press witnessed one of its darkest hours. As the Intifada was raging, and the world press was focusing on the Palestinian conflict, the Palestinian press (not Palestinian journalists) was the last place anyone would turn to in order to find out what was happening. The interference of the Israeli military censors ranged from banning the use of the word shahid (martyr) to negotiating about the number of Palestinians the local press was allowed to report killed or injured the previous day. The more important information the public got from secret leaflets published by the Unified National Leadership, as well as from graffiti scribbled on walls the night before or the loudspeakers of the local mosque.
Not only was the Palestinian press forbidden to publish Intifada-related news and commentary, but news about the two governments of interest to Palestinians was also out of bounds, as it was illegal to talk to members of the PLO and politically incorrect to talk to Israeli military or political leaders. Instead, the Palestinian press depended almost exclusively on second-hand reporting. News about Israel and Israeli officials was relegated to translations from the Hebrew press or monitored reports from Israel radio and TV. News about the PLO was taken verbatim from wire service dispatches from Tunis or wherever the PLO was making news.

Change of Laws and the Breakdown of Taboos

With the Madrid peace conference and the White House lawn handshake, the Palestinian media saw some qualitative development, together with the breakdown of the first obstacle facing the Palestinian press. Although the PLO was still officially illegal, the peace mood made it impossible for the then-Shamir right-wing government to castigate journalists for holding interviews with PLO officials. Leading Israeli newspapers interviewed PLO leaders, including Executive Committee Chairman Yasser Araf~t. The Palestinian press quickly took this as a green light for them. For the first time since the occupation, Palestinian journalists were able to conduct interviews with leading Palestinians, including those from the PLO, without worrying about legal punishment. Long and extensive interviews and analyses were also carried out with members of the Palestinian negotiating team. The Madrid conference and, later, the Washington negotiations also gave Palestinian journalists a professional boost. Their reporting and bylines replaced the usual wire-service stories.
Although it took much longer, talking to Israeli officials was also becoming more acceptable as the peace process moved forward, especially after the change of government in Israel with the election of the Rabin-Peres team. In June 1993, this writer suggested to the publisher of the largest Palestinian daily, AI-Quds, to interview Yitzhak Rabin and was to be the first Palestinian journalist ever to interview the leader of the State of Israel for a Palestinian daily. The one-hour interview which ran verbatim the following day in AlQuds allowed Rabin to speak directly to the Palestinian public. It also allowed a Palestinian journalist to question the Israeli leader on various issues dealing with the peace process, relations with the PLO, the future of the occupied Palestinian territories and the daily conditions there. Rabin, who at the time had approved the secret Oslo negotiations, refrained from attacking the PLO and suggested that the long-term status of the Palestinian territories had to be connected with neighboring Jordan. After that interview, the Palestinian press interviewed other Israeli officials and, for a while, Israeli officials started giving them press briefings about the progress of the peace process.

Oslo's Effects on the Palestinian Media

The Declaration of Principles (DOP) which was signed at the White House on September 13, 1993, with the subsequent Israeli army withdrawal from major Palestinian cities and the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), ushered in a new era for the Palestinian media. For the first time in the history of the Palestinian struggle, Palestinians were allowed to establish their own radio and television station on Palestinian soil. The Voice of Palestine and Palestine TV were able to broadcast, without official Arab governmental pressures, and without fear of Israeli air strikes. However, initial attempts to make the new Palestinian broadcasting service a public institution free of official Palestinian control failed, despite the large international support from France, the EU and UNESCO. The Palestinian Broadcasting Authority - later changed to the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) - became the official mouthpiece of the PNA. The Gaza office of the PBC is in the same building as President Arafat's headquarters.
The Palestinian president officially appoints the director and staff and the Palestinian Ministry of Finance determines the budget and pays the salaries.
When the Israelis withdrew from major Palestinian cities, they took with them the powerful transmitters of the Israel Television Arabic Service. Thus, the PBC was technically unable to reach the population of some major West Bank cities like Nablus. This electronic media vacuum played well into the hands of a few private media entrepreneurs who quickly set up low-power television stations. The Palestinian Ministry of Information, headed by Yasser Abed Rabbo, supported this move for a number of reasons: While negotiations for the release of airwaves were being held up, they wanted the airwaves occupied by Palestinian broadcasters so as to make their takeover a fiat. They also wanted to provide the PNA with alternative media outlets in case of an emergency and the stoppage by Israel of the broadcasting of the PBC. Minister Abed Rabbo has also stated that his support of the private radio and television stations was his party's way of upholding the democratic forces in Palestine by encouraging pluralistic and independent media.
The PNA has approved 21 television stations and six radio stations in the West Bank. No private station has been allowed to broadcast in the Gaza Strip. The operation of these stations has not been easy. Some have been closed by the Palestinian security forces, but were, usually, reopened shortly afterwards. The longest closure lasted three months when A-Ru'a Television in Bethlehem was closed down following its broadcast of messages of support for Iraq in January 1998, during the height of its confrontation with the United States. The director of an educational television station was also detained for a week in May 1997. An audiovisual law does not exist yet, but on June 6, 1997, the Palestinian Cabinet set up a 13-member liaison committee, with the responsibility of regulating the work of private radio and television stations in Palestine.
The Oslo process also produced many changes in the print media. The largest daily newspaper, AI-Quds, continues to be published in Jerusalem and, therefore, has to submit articles to an Israeli censor. Two new dailies, on the other hand, were established after the Oslo agreement: AI-Hayat AI- Jadidah and AI-Ayyam. These papers, published in Ramallah, don't have to receive the approval of an Israeli censor. But, while officially they are not bound by any formal censorship, the Palestinian press has been forced to adjust its policies to accommodate the Palestinian leadership.

A Reverse Trend

For the most part, the Palestinian media was busy working on the internal front. The emergence of the PNA provided the local media with ample issues to deal with. At the same time, it continued to cover the peace process on the political level. While the Rabin and Peres governments had provided the Palestinian media with possibilities of interviews with Israeli officials, the Netanyahu government reversed what little progress was achieved in this area.
As was the case before the peace process, the Palestinian press continues to dedicate considerable space to translations from the Hebrew press. These translations, often reflecting the Israeli peace camp, provide a misleading picture of Israeli thinking. And while no Palestinian journalist or columnist has been given a regular column in the Hebrew press, most Israeli columnists appear in the various Palestinian newspapers as part of the translated material from the Hebrew press. Sadly, with few exceptions, people-topeople projects are rarely covered in the Palestinian media. A PalestinianIsraeli television program for children, modeled after the Sesame Street series, as well as a few documentaries, were some of the few moments of genuine Palestinian-Israeli media interaction.
For their part, the Israelis pay little attention to what the Palestinian media has to say. The only parties that show any interest are right-wing Israeli groups that monitor the Palestinian press in order to use it as ammunition against the PNA. Programs on Palestinian television and articles in the Palestinian press are forwarded to the office of the Israeli prime minister, who uses them in his regular attacks against the PNA.