Palestinian TV stations struggle to broadcast after Israeli raid

A dispute over broadcasting frequencies has broken out between Israel and Palestine after Israeli authorities raided two Palestinian TV stations

By Lena Odgaard

In late February, Israeli military, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), confiscated computers, archives, equipment and a transmitter at Wattan TV station and the transmitter at Al-Quds Educational TV, a part of Jerusalem University’s Institute of Modern Media.

“They confiscated all of our nerve equipment leaving us paralysed. It’s a disaster”, says Wattan TV’s director, Muamar Orabi.

Wattan is the only independent TV channel unaffiliated with political parties in the Palestinian territories. To maintain this role Orabi declined on Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority, Salam Fayyad’s offer to replace the equipment.

“I will not loose credibility by receiving donations from the government”, says Orabi, who is instead hoping for international donors and partners to put pressure on Israel to return the equipment.

Israel asserts interference with airport frequencies

According to the official statement from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) the TV stations were broadcasting illegally as transmission frequencies interfered with aircraft communication signals at Ben Gurion airport located about 30 kilometres west of Ramallah.

Former officer at IDF, Dr. Mordechai Kedar from the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at the Israeli Bar-Ilan University, says that frequency agreements are often not recognised by the Palestinians and that Israel has to be very strict when it comes to aircraft safety.

“Distances in this country are very short, and any illegal – from radio, TV, taxi radio communications, or even children’s walkie-talkies – interferes in vital communications of police, fire fighters, ambulances, army and civil aviation”, says Kedar, who served for 25 years in IDF military intelligence.

Undersecretary of the Palestinian Ministry of Telecommunication, Suleiman Zuheiri, rejects the IDF’s claim of interference with aircraft signals, stating that these frequencies and TV frequencies are not in the same range.

Mr. Orabi of Wattan TV insists that the station was broadcasting legally:

“We pay our annual fees, says Orabi and explains that the station has been registered at the Palestinian Telecommunication Ministry since 1996 in accordance with the Oslo Accords and since 2004 also at the International Telecommunication Union, the UN Agency for information and communication technologies.”

According to Orabi, the Palestinian authorities cannot allocate frequencies without Israeli approval. And as Wattan TV got its frequencies 16 years ago, Israel must have agreed to the allocated frequency, he says.

According to Kedar, frequencies are not controlled exclusively by Israel but are divided based on agreements between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel.

“Israel should make sure that everyone – Israelis and Palestinians alike – use the frequencies in a way which will be safe for everyone,” says Kedar.

Confiscation makes broadcasting a challenge

At the Palestinian Center for Press Freedom, MADA, director Mousa Rimawi, says that it is not the first time Palestinian media outlets have been raided based on accusations of frequency interference.

“There have been conflicts over frequencies between Israel and Palestinians before. When Israel raided Palestinian TV and radio stations in the past years, they always claimed, that the media stations’ signals interfered with communication signals at Ben Gurion airport”, says Rimawi. But as Wattan TV has broadcasted using the same frequencies since the mid-nineties, Rimawi says, he wonders why any such interference has not been a problem before.

The fact that not only transmitting equipment was confiscated, but also laptops, hard drives, servers, archives, financial documents, staff pay checks and contracts with advertisers, also makes Rimawi question the official reason for the raid. He suggests it could be due to Wattan TV’s coverage of popular resistance activities against the Israeli occupation on the West Bank.

Kedar maintains that Israel needs to ensure, that the frequencies are used in a way that is safe for everyone. He also explains that if the station is suspected of other violations of Israeli law, the Israeli military can confiscate equipment and documents.

“Of course, if nothing discriminatory is found, they get the computers back. And if they think that computers should not have been taken, they can appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court and the court will immediately have the state give them back the computers,” says Kedar.

The UK-based NGO, Media Legal Defence Initiative, which offers legal aid to defend the rights of journalists and independent media outlets worldwide, say they are currently looking into possible ways of helping the TV station take the issue to an Israeli court.

“Looking at the facts we have, their right to freedom of expression has been violated and we are ready to help them defend that”, says Peter Noorlander, Chief Executive Officer of MLDI.

Until then, Wattan TV station is struggling to continue broadcasting by using borrowed equipment and employees’ personal computers. Still, the TV station resumed broadcasting just two days after the raid using the same frequency, as Orabi feared that it would otherwise be taken over by Israel.

“We are suffering on a daily basis because we do not have our basic equipment,” says Orabi, ” It will take at least six months to reproduce what was lost. I cannot even estimate the cost – it was priceless.”

The raids were condemned internationally by Vice President of the European Commission, Catherine Ashton and international organisations such as Reporters without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Press Institute. On 13 March, the European Parliament discussed the issue and urged Israel to return all confiscated equipment and for Israeli and Palestinian authorities to resolve the matter through joint talks.