Ramallah, Asharq Al Awsat – Palestinian media lacks the medium through which it can address and engage with foreign and Israeli public opinion. Observers and specialists often complain of the weakness of the Palestinian media, especially in comparison to the Israeli dominance in the field, which is successful in effectively addressing the world and even thoroughly following up on Palestinian issues in a way that reveals many of the most important and sensitive causes.
Published in Ramallah and just launched last week, ‘Palestine Times’ is the first foreign daily newspaper to be published in the Palestinian territories since al Fajr (English-language weekly) closed down in the 1990s, also marking the first newspaper to appear in English following the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. According to the Editor-in-Chief, Maher Abu Khater, ‘Palestine Times’ aims to address the world in a different and specialized language, adding that the daily’s primary goal is, ‘to deliver information from Palestinian sources to the foreign reader.” He acknowledged the difficulties faced in distribution, particularly in Gaza and the West Bank, since it’s published in English and approximately costs US $1.25 while other Palestinian newspapers are sold for prices substantially under a dollar.
Speaking to Asharq Al Awsat, Abu Khater stressed that the newspaper is not aimed at Palestinians inasmuch as foreigners working in Palestine, with the added intention of achieving a presence within the Israeli public opinion. He stated that the ‘Palestine Times’ chiefly relies on the Israeli market for distribution; figures currently stand at 5,000 copies. Emphasizing that the paper will mainly be competing against Israeli not Palestinian papers, Abu Khater realizes that his newspaper is under the spotlight by virtue of it being unique and critically important to the Palestinian experience. He defines it as an, “independent, commercial and profit-based” paper that is not affiliated to any organization or particular political entity. He supports his statement by citing that the paper adopts a tolerant attitude and a range of different opinions such as including two articles in its first issue; one by the Palestinian Authority’s Cabinet Secretary, Ahmed Abdul Rahman, and another by Dr Ghazi Hamad, the spokesman of the Palestinian government, Hamas.
Abu Khater has confirmed that he is still engaged in negotiations with writers and reporters about potential positions in the newspaper although the staff is currently comprised of approximately 40 journalists, correspondents and editors, some of whom are foreigners who work in the editorial department, while others are spread out in the West Bank and Gaza. However, despite obtaining a permit from the Israeli authorities allowing for the newspaper’s distribution in Israel, it has yet to be distributed owing to technical reasons related to the Israeli distribution company. Abu Khater believes that if the paper can sell over 10,000 copies in Israel, it will have succeeded.
Senior Arab Affairs Correspondent for Yediot Aharonot, Ronny Shaked, agrees with Abu Khater that this would indeed be a marker of success if the newspaper can achieve this circulation figure in Israel or Palestine, however he expressed doubts over the matter because he harbors professional reservations and skepticism in terms of the accuracy of the news, the credibility of which Abu Khater adamantly defends. According to Dr Nashaat al Atqash, professor of advertising and public relations at Birzeit University in Palestine, there are other reasons for the difficulty in distribution related to the extremist nature of the Israeli street, add to that the fact that the newspaper is Palestinian. Moreover, he sees that there is a low level of Palestinian readership for Palestinian newspapers, furthermore the ‘Palestinian Times’ is in English and is expensive. He believes that it is a massive undertaking but one that can be achieved in Israel by specialized organizations and concerned institutions. Another significant contributor to the newspaper’s success, according to Dr Hani al Masri, the director of the Palestinian Center for Media Alternatives and Research, is for the paper to gain approval as a news source in Israel and abroad and for it to offer bold coverage, which is a characteristic that he believes to be lacking in Palestinian newspapers.
Al Aqtash upholds that a newspaper such as the ‘Palestine Times’ is more important than the news broadcast on television, a matter that al Masri agrees with, adding that it is thus related to the sources of funding, their scale and sustainability. Abu Khater had indicated that the newspaper plans to be self-reliant in its funding and that it will be dependent on advertising, especially Israeli advertisements – an idea that hasn’t been sufficiently studied according to al Aqtash who believes that the Israeli public will not accept a ‘Palestinian commodity’. Moreover, al Aqtash sees that this will reduce the distribution of the newspaper and states that advertisements usually fail to cover the cost of paper. In order to ensure its longevity and status as an important source of information, he believes that the newspaper should seek Palestinian institutions that support its cause to sponsor. Both al Aqtash and al Masri believe that the newspaper needs a minimum of four years if it were to be successful in understanding the demands of foreign public opinion and how to address it, while maintaining its independence and adopting a professional outlook. Al Aqtash believes that the newspaper’s readership whether in Israel or Palestine will only be limited to journalists and specialists from the intellectual elite who will not accept mixing news with opinion, and will not tolerate any mistakes, or incomplete reporting, or the lack of specialized supplements – an allusion to the poor performance of local Palestinian newspapers.
The first edition of ‘Palestine Times’ was issued last Monday 27 November and was distributed for free for the first three days so as to encourage readers. The newspaper is 12-pages long, has no supplements and will not be published on Saturdays.
Advocating it as a first step, both al Masri and al Aqtash told Asharq Al Awsat that it is still to early to judge the newspaper and its ability to address the public, however they both expressed concern for a Palestinian newspaper that is published in English.