The working assumption in Washington and European capitals is that arming and training Palestinian policemen are more important than creating a free media.

But as long as Palestinians do not trust their own media, they will never trust their leaders when it comes to making crucial decisions such as peace with Israel.

Before signing the next check for the Palestinian Authority government, therefore, it would be helpful if the Americans and Europeans asked Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad about the state of the media in Palestine.

The result of this policy is that the Palestinians have to rely on Al-Jazeera, Hizbullah's Al-Manar TV station and even the Israeli media, as well as other networks and news Web sites around the world, as main sources of information. Not surprisingly, one public opinion poll once revealed that Palestinians trust the Israeli media more than their own newspapers and TV and radio stations.

Under the current circumstances, it would be naive to assume that Hamas would allow a free and independent media to emerge in the Gaza Strip. Yet there is no reason why the government of Abbas and Salam Fayyad, which relies on US and EU taxpayers’ money for survival, should be suppressing the emergence of a decent and free media in the West Bank.

The Americans and Europeans bear some responsibility for the absence of a free and independent media in the Palestinian territories.

When Yasser Arafat first turned the Palestinian media into an organ for his regime back in 1994, not only did the Western donors -- and to a certain extent the Western media -- not even protest, they turned a blind eye to Arafat's security forces and henchmen as they arrested, beat, threatened, harassed and even killed Palestinian journalists who did not "toe the line."

The situation has not changed much since Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, took over in January 2005. The official Palestinian TV and radio stations are not different from the government-controlled media in Syria, libya and other Arab dictatorships.

The three major Palestinian newspapers, Al-Quds, Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda and Al-Ayyam are controlled, both directly and indirectly, by the Palestinian government in the West Bank. Needless to say, the local media in the Gaza Strip are controlled by Hamas.

Even those EU-funded and private media outlets in the West Bank that claim to be "independent" are, in one way or another, influenced by Abbas's top aides. True, official censorship does not exit in the West Bank. But the editors and journalists working there have themselves become self-censors, knowing what they could and could not share with the public.

When Palestinians, like most people in the Arab world, want to learn about what is happening in their areas, they turn to outside sources for information.

There are many fine and professional Palestinian journalists, but they have no place in the local media. This is why they are forced to go and work in Israeli, Arab and Western media organizations.

The US and EU, which continue to pour billions of dollars on the Palestinians every year, have not done nearly enough to promote free and independent journalism in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that would enable the Palestinians to trust their leaders enough to back peace with the Israelis.

It has been almost 20 years since the Palestinian Authority was established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the Palestinians already have two separate political entities with two governments, two prime ministers and two police forces, but they are still lacking a free and independent media that does not serve as a mouthpiece for either Hamas or Fatah.

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