Marc Lynch

Palestinian Authority closes down Al Jazeera offices

Letter ordering closure of al-Jazeera office in West Bank (source: al-Jazeera) The other day I mentioned the explosive allegations made by PLO political section head Farouq Qaddoumi that Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammed Dahlan had conspired with Israel and the U.S. to have Yasir Arafat killed. Abbas has called Qaddoumi’s statement “lies” and threatened punishment, and ...

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Letter ordering closure of al-Jazeera office in West Bank (source: al-Jazeera)

The other day I mentioned the explosive allegations made by PLO political section head Farouq Qaddoumi that Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammed Dahlan had conspired with Israel and the U.S. to have Yasir Arafat killed. Abbas has called Qaddoumi’s statement “lies” and threatened punishment, and rumors are that Qaddoumi will soon be expelled from his position in the PLO; Qaddoumi has presented documents that he claims prove his contention. His comments to a group of Jordanian journalists have led to a minor diplomatic crisis between the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. That will pass. But they have also led a defensive Mahmoud Abbas to order the closure of the Al Jazeera offices in the West Bank.

That’s a major mistake, and all too typical of the way the Palestinian Authority and most other Arab governments have approached critical media over the years. Shutting down critical media outlets represents the bad habit of the official Arab order, which has never adjusted to the contentious new media (whether Al Jazeera or political blogs).

The PA decision is more troubling than the run-of-the-mill story of Arab regimes hating free media, though, because it comes at a time when the contours of an emerging Palestinian state are being shaped. Salam al-Fayyad’s role in the crackdown is particularly disturbing, given the great hopes the United States has placed on him personally. The reflexive hostility to a free media shows yet again why the Palestinian Authority in its current configuration is a poor foundation for building a viable Palestinian state, and shows the need for major political and institutional reforms. What does it say for the hope of building a political system on the basis of the rule of law and political freedoms when its U.S.-backed leadership cavalierly closes down media outlets it doesn’t like?

The tension between the PA and Al Jazeera has deep roots, of course.  Abbas and PA officials have often complained that the satellite network favors Hamas. I’ve asked top Al Jazeera officials in Doha and Al Jazeera’s Jerusalem bureau chief Walid al-Omari about that a number of times over the years. They have described to me the elaborate editorial protocols worked up to ensure balanced coverage of Palestinian issues, and shown me a lot of examples of how it works in practice. But that doesn’t stop the complaints. A top Al Jazeera person who I won’t name here once told me that when Mahmoud Abbas came through Doha to complain about Al Jazeera’s coverage, he admitted that he hadn’t actually seen any of it because he was too busy to watch TV. Awesome. I can’t imagine that this is going to improve Al Jazeera’s view of the PA, or its image among Al Jazeera’s public, which includes the lion’s share of Palestinians (five of the top seven stories on Al Jazeera’s Arabic news page are currently devoted to the affair, as is a rush of on-air coverage; see Asad Abu Khalil for an incisive and entertaining take on this). 

The United States and those who support the principle of press freedoms — as well as those who hope to push for the development of effective, capable, and democratic Palestinian institutions — should protest this vigorously. But as I wrote the other day, I think that Abbas’s acute sensitivity right now has less to do with Al Jazeera than it does with the coming Fatah conference due to be held in a few weeks. The stakes are high and the intensity is growing, as the various Fatah factions (eight? 11? 13? depends how you count) jockey for position ahead of a meeting that will presumably define the future direction of the PLO and the internal distribution of power. Qaddoumi’s bombshell has put Abbas and Dahlan on the defensive, disrupting their preparations and distracting from their efforts. How it will play out remains to be seen. But closing down Al Jazeera isn’t the answer and will only distract from the real internal political issues. 

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark