RAMALLAH, WEST BANK // The Palestinian government shut down the West Bank operations of the Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera yesterday, a day after a guest on the station accused the Palestinian president of involvement in Yasser Arafat's death. For the feisty news station - the Arab world's most popular - the closure represents the latest clash with a Middle Eastern government. Israel often criticises it, Iraq has expelled it and Saudi Arabia only let it resume work recently after a long ban.
But in shutting Al Jazeera down, the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas may be picking a fight with one of the most potent shapers of Arab public opinion. The closure came the day after a talk show guest claimed - without presenting evidence - that Mr Abbas played a role in the 2004 death of Yasser Arafat, the former president and revered founder of the Palestinian national movement. The guest, Farouk Kaddoumi, is a high-ranking, Tunis-based official in both the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Mr Abbas' Fatah movement, but the two men are longtime rivals.
The Palestinian Information Ministry accused Al Jazeera of incitement and unbalanced reporting and took issue with a broadcast on Tuesday, without providing further details. "Everybody evaluated what they have seen from that channel in the last days if not more, the last days was clear incitement against the PA," the information minister Riad al Malki said from the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Summit in Egypt.
"We are not curtailing [press freedom]. We are respecting the law, that is why we asked the legal system to act," he added. The ministry is suing Al Jazeera and the station's operations are suspended until the court has ruled. Al Jazeera's Qatar headquarters issued a statement that said the stations had "maintained strict, professional journalistic standards". Walid Al Omary, Al Jazeera's bureau chief in Jerusalem, also denied accusations of bias.
"We are sorry about this decision, which we consider a violation of freedom of expression and freedom of the press in this country," he said. Mr Abbas' aides have long alleged that the Qatar-based station, widely watched in the Palestinian territories, favours the Islamic militant group Hamas in the bitter Palestinian power struggle. Hamas seized Gaza by force in 2007, ousting forces loyal to Abbas and leaving the president in control only of the West Bank.
Mr Abbas has since clamped down on Hamas in the West Bank. In the Gaza Strip, the Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the West Bank government was trying to silence the media and "cover up what is going on in the West Bank," a reference to Mr Abbas' operations against Hamas. Hamas has carried out similar arrest raids and shut down Abbas-linked media outlets in Gaza. The West Bank political analyst Khalil Shaheen, a guest on the show believed to have caused offence, said he disagreed with some views expressed, but that Al-Jazeera shouldn't be punished for airing them.
"That's one issue," he said of his disagreements with the other guests, "but the continuation of freedom of opinion and expression is another." *AP