September 20, 2001
Censorship of Dancing Streets
After noon prayers in the mosque last Friday, hundreds of Palestinian Muslims marched in triumph through Gaza's Nuseirat refugee camp brandishing portraits of Osama bin Laden, some as big as 15 feet.
Hamas' anti-American rally was not shown on the world's television screens. Still photographs did not make the newspapers.
Palestinian security forces, under orders from their political masters, made sure they never left the Gaza Strip. They confiscated videotapes from three international news agencies, Reuters, Associated Press and Agence France Presse. One still photographer evaded their clutches, but was then ordered not to e-mail his shots.
Most of the crews covering the mayhem in the West Bank and Gaza are local Arabs. They are vulnerable to intimidation. They live in Palestinian-controlled territory. Vigilantes, official or unofficial, know where to find them.
Sept. 11, immediately after the World Trade Center bombings, hundreds of Palestinians danced in the streets of Nablus, the biggest West Bank town. Again, the pictures didn't get out. A local Associated Press photographer, who had covered the episode, received a death threat.
Someone from the Tanzim, the militia of Yasser Arafat's Al Fatah movement, phoned and said: "We'll get you if you publish your photos." Officials of the Palestinian Authority reinforced the message. "We can't guarantee your man's safety," they told his editors. "You know what the Tanzim are like."
The Foreign Press Association issued a statement registering "deep concern over the harassment of journalists by the Palestinian Authority." It strongly condemned "the direct threats made against local videographers by local militia members and the attitude of Palestinian officials, who made no effort to counter the threats, control the situation, or to guarantee the safety of the journalists and the freedom of the press."
Media executives who interceded were left with a clear impression that Palestinian officials were more concerned about limiting the public relations damage than being portrayed as suppressers of information. The officials even argued that publication would put Arab lives at risk - in the United States, where angry Americans might take revenge, or here, where Israel might take it as a license to punish.
What was that about truth being the first casualty of war?