The Hamas-Fatah War on Media: Gagging the Written Word

By Joharah Baker

On February 3, a court under the deposed Hamas government in the Gaza Strip ordered a ban on the distribution of the Palestinian daily, Al Ayyam. Apparently, the court order came after complaints about a three-month old cartoon published in the pro-Fateh newspaper depicting Hamas’ Palestinian Legislative Council members, bearded and in the image of deposed Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. The word “illegitimate” [al-lashariyyeh] appears on the bottom right corner of the cartoon, drawn by famed Palestinian cartoonist Baha Al Bukhari.

Al Ayyam, one of the widest circulated and read Arabic-language newspapers in the Palestinian territories, was never halted in the Gaza Strip, even after Hamas took power there in June, 2007. However, Hamas lawmakers in the Strip complained that the cartoon was defamatory, disrespectful and bordering on blasphemous. However, this was not the cover under which Hamas carried out its campaign and ultimately got a court ruling banning the daily.

“The decision was taken by the courts because the published cartoon was aimed against the Legislative Council and this is a violation of the publishing law," head of the Hamas government press office Hassan Abu Hashish, told AFP. “The PLC made a legal complaint and the decision was issued in accordance with legal, not political, considerations.”

The court also issued suspended jail sentences to Al Bukhari, Al Ayyam’s editor-in-chief Akram Haniyeh and the newspaper’s Gaza manager, Sami Qishawi in addition to fines against all three. Given that both these men are in the West Bank, it is unclear how the Gaza court plans to impose its verdicts.

Nevertheless, with all of the tension between Hamas and Fateh, it is virtually impossible to even consider that such a decision was not fueled by political motives. Since its military takeover of the Gaza Strip back in June after a relatively short but bloody confrontation with Fateh, Hamas has been hanging on to power by the skin of its teeth, regardless of the consequences. One more jab at Fateh, especially when it is draped in legal terms, seems the natural response to a movement so intent on holding on to perceived positions of power, regardless of the fact that the Gaza government is besieged, isolated and shunned by most of the world.

To add fuel to the fire, some in Hamas are drawing comparisons between the now infamous cartoon and the defiled 2006 Danish cartoons that depicted the Prophet Mohammed in a less than flattering manner and caused rioting and criticism throughout the Muslim world.

Al Ayyam and its cartoonist, Al Bukhari reject all of these claims outright, saying the ban on the newspaper is part of Hamas’ “silencing policy.” Al Bukhari, known for his satirical cartoons, brushed the accusations off, saying the Hamas legislators thought he had depicted them as monkeys, which he insists is not the case. “Some people forget my identity. Not only am I a Muslim myself, but my ancestors are Sufi and all bearded. I would definitely not criticize my own family or my ancestors,” Al Bukhari added.

No doubt, the word “illegitimate” only helped to raise the chagrin of the Hamas lawmakers, indicating that their Legislative Council sessions were illegal.

Needless to say, the ban on the gazette’s circulation has set plenty of tongues wagging. Hamas has been charged with violating the Palestinian freedom of speech, suppressing freedom of expression and a free press. Truth be told, the accusations are sticking.

While the banning of Al Ayyam newspaper in Gaza should not be condoned given the credibility of the newspaper, its wide circulation and its respected writers and staff, many have tended to overlook another hard fact that could shed a different light on the situation.

Two newspapers affiliated with Islamic movements – Al Risala and Al Istiqlal – have been repeatedly closed by the Palestinian Authority both in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. After Hamas’ takeover of Gaza, the West Bank government banned them from distribution, claiming they promoted incitement.

This may be partly true. The newspaper often does not hide its sentiments about the inter-Palestinian fighting or about other world issues – a 2006 caricature depicted Pope Benedict XVI, as a crony for the US and Israel carrying a stick with the swastika. However, no media outburst took place after these newspapers were banned from distribution in the West Bank, nor were there cries of injustice or charges of oppressing personal liberties.

Hence, this begs the question of whether either side is actually propelled into action by legitimate foundations or do they both possess ulterior political motives, which could only benefit from the actions they take, in this case, banning newspapers? If we choose the argument that both undoubtedly have political motives, then why is the outrage over Hamas’ actions so much louder?

The only logical explanation is, naturally, a political one. The West Bank government and all those who back it want to see this government in power in the Gaza Strip. For reasons all too clear to everyone involved, Hamas has become the quintessential “odd man out”, so it is understandable that any action taken by this group will automatically be shoved under the microscope for critical scrutiny, because what better way to discredit a movement than discrediting their every move?

To be fair, the ban on Al Ayyam is certainly worthy of criticism. While the cartoon does poke fun at the parliamentarians, is hardly offensive to Islam. But satire is usually the modus operandi of any cartoonist, newspapers included. So, could this decision be a tit-for-tat response for President Abbas’ ban on the Islamist newspapers? Or is it a bid to tighten their grip on their assumed control? If so, this is nothing more than the making of a dictatorship, a possibility we should all be terrified of.

Banning Al Ayyam newspaper is a violation of our freedom of expression, no doubt. But this is a principle that should apply across the board. Just because we do not necessarily agree with the ideas put forth by this party or that or like what we read in black and white, it does not mean we should relegate these efforts to the recycle bin. Laws, rules and regulations are there for a purpose – to organize our civic life and to ensure that we stay within respectable boundaries. Still, let’s not abuse the system.

-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (This article was first published by MIFTAH – www.Miftah.org.)

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