“Free press” and “the Arab world” are two phrases in direct opposition. Across most of the region, journalists go to jail if they criticize or defy the government.
So ribbon cuttings and airport greetings — scenes that journalists call “a grip and grin” — predominate news casts. The rest of the air time is filled with endless loops of political orthodoxy: gruesome images of Israelis mistreating Palestinians or Americans brutalizing Iraqis.
That’s not what Muamar Orabi offers on Wattan TV. He’s the station’s director. Wattan (which means “homeland”) is a commercial, secular station broadcasting from Ramallah, Palestine. In the Arab world, that by itself is quite unusual.
“There is another land in Palestine, different from the one portrayed on other Arab TV stations,” Orabi said. “We like to focus on internal political news, cultural events, success stories. It’s very important to raise the voices of marginalized people, and to make the government accountable for them.”
In other words, Orabi’s station tries to make the case that Palestinians have a life apart from their interminable conflict with Israel. Children get up every morning and go to school. Shopkeepers welcome customers, and restaurants take lunch reservations. Every day there’s a traffic jam in Ramallah’s city center. At night, parents read their children a book before putting them to bed.
That’s not to say the conflict is absent from daily life. Israeli security checkpoints make traveling between West Bank cities difficult to impossible. The security wall surrounding most of the West Bank in some places divides villages. Israeli settlements continue to gobble up West Bank acreage. And, of course, occasionally a West Bank Palestinian attacks an Israeli, or vice versa.
But to watch the other Arab stations’ coverage of the West Bank, you would think that life there is nothing more than an unending, brutal struggle with Israel.
“We present another face of Palestine,” Orabi told me.
He is in the United States this month, on an Eisenhower Fellowship, looking for funding and advice. The U.S. Agency for International Development recognized the value of having an independent station serving the West Bank and Gaza and gave him $500,000 to upgrade his facilities — not enough, he complains.
As it turns out, Wattan is now the most popular station in the West Bank and Gaza because it defies the Arab political orthodoxy that says every consideration of life is less important than the struggle against Israel.
For more than 40 years Arab leaders have promoted this world view — primarily as a means to distract their subjects from complaining about how poorly they are treated at home. Of course we are concerned about poverty, these leaders aver. But all our thoughts, all our resources, must be devoted to fighting the Zionists, freeing our Palestinian brothers!
Of course, the Arab leaders do nothing for the Palestinians but talk. Still, after 40 years, this mantra has become pervasive, unshakable. So it’s no wonder that Arab television continues to play those endless loops showing Israeli soldiers brutalizing children.
That’s not to say that Wattan TV never participates in this pandering. It runs a newscast, and often the conflict with Israel is the news.
As it is, Orabi often gets in trouble.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, may put up a pleasant enough face to the West. He talks of democracy; he espouses Western values. But he is no more willing to take criticism than other Arab kings, dictators and potentates.
A few months ago, when Wattan TV aired a piece on the corruption that is endemic to the Palestinian government, Orabi said, Abbas’ agents arrested him along with several other staff members.
“They put me in jail and wanted me to sign a paper saying I wouldn’t broadcast anymore,” he said. “I refused.” Eventually they let him go. But that was hardly the first time the government has gone after his station — and probably not the last.
A retrograde government is not Wattan TV’s only problem. Hamas airs three satellite channels with high-end production values — using money supplied by Iran. And, of course, Abbas has a station of his own, amply funded from Palestinian government funds, legitimately or illegally obtained. You can only imagine the carnage shown every day on Hamas TV, while viewers of Abbas’ station are encouraged to think that their president does nothing but shake the hands of other world leaders and inaugurate newly paved roads.
Amid all this, a station with an avowed mission to be independent, not a mouthpiece for political leaders or their orthodoxy, deserves to be encouraged.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joel Brinkley is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times and now a professor of journalism at Stanford University. Readers may send him e-mail at: brinkley AT foreign-matters.com