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Palestinian gagged by 'thought police'

Arafat's men keep lid on claims of corruption and brutality, writes Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem
Palestinian police yesterday detained a prominent Palestinian journalist in an apparent effort to prevent the live broadcast of the proceedings of the Palestinian parliament. The arrest of Daoud Kuttab is the latest move by the security forces of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, to bring the Palestinian media under his total control.

Earlier Mr Arafat's Palestinian Authority, which rules the Palestinian enclaves, had jammed Mr Kuttab's television station, whose transmissions are the only way the Palestinian public can find out what goes on in the Palestinian Legislative Council, which they elected last year. The police are apparently eager to prevent the broadcast of allegations of corruption and brutality in the Palestinian leadership.

Mr Kuttab, an American-Palestinian who lives in Jerusalem, was detained after he was called to the police station in Ramallah, an autonomous Palestinian enclave.

His brother Jonathan said: "He got a call at 11pm last night to go to see Captain Faris of the criminal police to talk about the broadcasting of the Legislative Council. He phoned me from the police station in Ramallah at 2.30am to say he had been detained."

Mr Arafat's administration is deeply sensitive to attacks by members of the Palestinian parliament over its conduct of peace talks with Israel, reliance on 11 different security forces and use of torture. Such criticism is never mentioned by the official Palestinian press, radio or television, which always laud Mr Arafat and his lieutenants.

In order to publicise their proceedings, the Legislative Council several months ago gave Mr Daoud's Al-Quds Education Channel the right to broadcast them live. To his astonishment he found that he was being jammed. Nabil Amr, the head of the Palestinian Broadcasting Company (PBC), the official Palestinian TV, denied that his facilities were being used for the jamming. But the reality proved to be different. When Mr Kuttab visited the PBC, he found the control room guarded by policemen, and technicians inside involved in jamming his station.

When Mr Arafat took control of Gaza and Jericho in 1994, many Palestinian journalists hoped that at last they could have their own media, free from Israeli control. But systematic intimidation by Mr Arafat's security forces has ensured it is becoming as compliant and uncritical as anything in Damascus or Baghdad.

Intimidation sometimes starts even before an article is even published, as Jibril Salameh, a lawyer in Gaza, discovered last month when he submitted a piece he had written to a local law journal. He daringly suggested that there was a lesson for Palestinians in the way the Israeli police, investigating a political corruption scandal, had vigorously questioned Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, and his justice minister. He asked: "When will we see such examples implemented in the Palestinian Authority territories?"

Not only did Mr Salameh's article not see the light of day, but a lawyer on the journal passed it on to Khalid al-Kidreh, the Palestinian attorney general. Mr al-Kidreh promptly signed an order for the author's arrest, citing security reasons, and Mr Salameh disappeared into prison for ten days.

Bassam Eid of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group says that among Palestinians freedom of expression has become very limited. He repeats a sour little joke he heard in Gaza: "A man in Gaza has a toothache. He complains to his friends about it. His friends ask: "Why don't you go to the dentist." He replies: "What is the point of going to the dentist when I'm forbidden to open my mouth?"