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Palestinian Media Woes

As PLO's money dries up, so do journals in occupied territories

EVEN Yasser Arafat's mother-in-law has not escaped the squeeze.

Raymonda Tawil, co-owner of the Palestine Press Service, has had to lay off all the agency's journalists around the occupied territories, and slash the Jerusalem staff's salary by 30 percent. And the fact that her daughter is married to the chairman makes no difference when the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is cutting costs.

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The PLO's financial crisis, brought on by Arab governments that have canceled their contributions since the Palestinians sympathized with Iraq's Saddam Hussein in the Gulf war, has hit many Palestinian institutions in the occupied territories that once depended on semiclandestine subsidies from PLO headquarters in Tunis.

Hospitals, schools, and universities are all feeling the pinch. But nowhere are the effects as clear as in the Palestinian press.

Two weeks ago, the staff of the daily Al Fajr received their notice and a letter from the publisher warning that the paper would close July 24th. The blow came three months after another of the occupied territories' four dailies, Al Shaab, folded when the staff walked out to protest their not being paid for several months.

Two weekly magazines have also gone under recently, leaving the field to Al Quds, which most Palestinians read for its small ads and social register, and An Nahar, whose subsidy from the Jordanian government is an open secret.

Palestinian journalists and editors do not blame their travails only on cuts in foreign funding, however. The local economy, always weak because of the Israeli occupation, has dropped off 30 percent since the Israeli government closed off the territories three months ago.

"In a weak economy with limited advertising, it is almost impossible to survive on income from the local market," complains Hana Siniora, the editor of Al Fajr.

It is not only potential advertisers who have been hurt. "If you give someone the option of buying either a newspaper or four pieces of pita bread for a shekel, he'll opt for the second choice," says Zakaria al-Qaq, a Palestinian political analyst.

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But many Palestinians point to the newspapers' content as sufficient explanation of their poor sales.

"When the PLO decided to open its own newspapers in the early 1970s, it just wanted them to praise the PLO," says Ruba al-Husari, correspondent in the occupied territories for the most respected Arab newspaper, the London-based Al Hayat. "They didn't care about having good quality, credible newspapers with professional journalists."

The standards of the journalists who work on the local papers are often woefully inadequate, press critics say, as many are chosen more for political than professional reasons. The journalists' union, the Arab Journalists' Association, is more a battleground for various factions of the PLO than a body promoting professional standards.

At the same time, editors complain, their work is made doubly hard by strict Israeli censorship. "A merchant in East Jerusalem will see a clash [between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers] in the street one day," says Mr. Siniora, "and the next day he will see nothing in the paper about it. And he blames the journalists."

Siniora says that with staff cuts and other budgetary measures, he can make up the $20,000-a-month deficit that the PLO no longer covers, and that he will be able to keep the paper alive.

But it will be a struggle. And in the current economic and political circumstances, the incentives are meager for any investor thinking of launching a new Palestinian paper.

Mr. Qaq, for one, is biding his time, even though he has been granted a publisher's license by the Israelis. Short of funds and professional staff, he awaits a clearer Palestinian future before launching himself into the business. If that day comes, he says, "we will need a complete rehabilitation of the Palestinian press."

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