Since the Oslo Accords and the subsequent implementation of Palestinian self-government in the form of the Palestinian National Authority, governance in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has been characterized by a kind of dangerous creeping authoritarianism where the PA has attempted to undermine or co-opt Palestinian civil society organizations (NGOs, media outlets, other political parties) in an attempt to gain firm control over the lives of the Palestinian people. Yasser Arafat began this trend in earnest, but the election of current president Mahmoud Abbas was supposed to bring about comprehensive Palestinian governmental reform, eliminating rampant corruption, establishing and defending the rule of law, and strengthening the separation of powers between the executive and the legislature. Small steps have been made by Abbas, but certainly not what he initially promised or what most Palestinians and Western commentators hoped for.
Continuing this trend of creeping authoritarianism, the caretaker government appointed by Abbas moved to sue and suspend the operations of the Al-Jazeera television network in the West Bank. The truly Orwellian Palestinian Information Ministry (can anyone show me a regime with an "information ministry" that isn't characterized by creeping or outright authoritarianism?) accused the Qatar-based network of inciting Palestinians against the PA, sympathizing with Hamas, and spreading "false information." The allegations stem from a report broadcast by Al-Jazeera and several other television networks in the West Bank which cited comments made by senior Fateh leader Farouq Qaddoumi accusing President Mahmoud Abbas of conspiring with Israeli agents to assassinate his predecessor Yasser Arafat.
The Information Ministry released a statement containing the following:
"Al-Jazeera has always dedicated a wide portion of its broadcasts to incitement against the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority. Despite repeated requests to be impartial in its coverage of Palestinian affairs, the station continued to incite against the PLO and the PA. The latest false news was aired yesterday. We expect media outlets operating in Palestine to go about their work in a way that does not contradict Palestinian national interest and rule of law."The ministry's comments are certainly indicative of the soft-authoritarian nature of the Palestinian Authority. (Perhaps by publishing this I will not be allowed back in the Occupied Territories for "incitement and false information.") The PA has long used the assertion that organizations must not act to contradict the "national interest" as a foolproof method to assert control over independent civil society organizations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Of course, the PA alone has the power to assert what exactly the Palestinian national interest is and unsurprisingly this does not include criticizing the less than democratic PA and the confused and increasingly irrelevant PLO. Furthermore, what exactly does it mean to ask media outlets to work in a way that does not contradict the rule of law? Isn't that just a convoluted way of saying it is illegal to break the law? The PA certainly could use a refresher course on the rule of law, as the current appointed government has not constitutional legitimacy to be ruling the West Bank and President Abbas is basically ruling by decree. Of course, since the inception of Palestinian self-government the Fateh-led PA has never really shown a strong commitment to the rule of law.
The Palestinian Media Forum strongly criticized the PA for its Al-Jazeera suspension and warned that the government was acting similarly to the Israeli Defense Forces, shutting down media outlets it deems a threat.
The Al-Jazeera network fired back against the PA suspension stating, "The Palestinian Authority's reaction reflects a repression of the freedom of media and a refusal to tolerate the opinions of others." Al-Jazeera's statement could not be further from "false information" but it certainly incites Palestinians to demand the reform they deserve from their government.
Update: Ma'an News, my go-to Palestinian media outlet has highlighted the relevant section of the Palestinian Basic Law pertaining to the freedom of press. Chapter 2, Article 14 reads:
"Every person shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and expression and publication of his opinion either orally, in writing or in the form of art or through any form of expression, subject to observance of restrictions imposed by law for the respect of the rights or reputations of others, the protection of national security or of public order or of public health or morals."That certainly has far more qualifiers than any free press advocate would like, but it appears the case against Al-Jazeera would be flimsy at best. Printing Qaddoumi's actual words in no way infringes on the rights or reputations of him. Alleging that the comments endanger national security or public order is a long-shot at best and a hilarious joke at worst. Reporting that Fateh is facing serious internal factionalism is not "news" in any sense to Palestinians. The disputes have been embarrassingly public since the Gaza takeover in 2007 and power struggles within Fateh and the PLO have been known for decades.
The most disappointing development in all of this seems to be the collusion of Western-backed "reformer" Salam Fayyad in Al-Jazeera's suspension. Fayyad himself ordered Attorney General Ahmed Al-Mughani to pursue the suit agains the network. While Fayyad ran for Palestinian Legislative Council under the Third Way party and was appointed PM by Abbas for his independent credentials and Western support, it seems he has grown much closer to Fateh and abandoned his role as independent reformer as of recent.
The Palestinian Center for Policy, Survey, and Research reports that nearly 60% of Palestinians regularly tune in to the Al-Jazeera network, nearly six times the number of the second most popular station, Al-Aqsa TV.