Read for almost 25 years as the unofficial voice of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the East Jerusalem newspaper Al Fajr announced Friday that it would cease publication next month because of acute financial problems.
Publisher Paul Ajluni blamed Israel’s three-month closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the resulting isolation of Arab East Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ political and economic center, from the occupied territories for the sharp drop in Al Fajr’s circulation, now barely 3,000 a day, and in its advertising revenues.
“We have always had a commitment to the Palestinian national cause, to Palestinian progress and to a Palestinian state,” Ajluni said in a telephone interview from New York. “But it takes money to put out a newspaper, and that money is not coming in. . . . Sadly, we are at the end.”
But staff members at Al Fajr and other Palestinian journalists said the underlying cause of the paper’s cash crisis was an end to its substantial PLO subsidies. These depended on largess from Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Arab states, and that was all but ended following PLO support for Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
“Al Fajr is no different from our hospitals, universities, training schools and other Palestinian institutions--they are all starved for funds,” said Daoud Kuttab, a leading Palestinian journalist. “The PLO is virtually broke, and subsidizing Al Fajr is not its first priority.”
Al Fajr’s closing--at a crucial time for the Palestinians, who are now negotiating an agreement on self-government with Israel--will silence what had been a strongly nationalist voice under Hanna Siniora, its editor for the past 15 years.
Siniora was traveling abroad when the announcement was made and could not be reached for comment.
“Long term, Al Fajr would probably not survive, but that would be due to the development of an independent national press,” Kuttab said. “Its death now, however, is premature. For us, it is a historic name--The Dawn--and the mission of national liberation is not yet achieved, and far from it.”
The decision to close Al Fajr was made by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, according to Palestinian journalists, and he had delayed the move until after a string of other newspapers and magazines had been closed here.
“Altogether, 63 institutions funded by Fatah (Arafat’s mainstream PLO faction) are being shut down,” the editor of another East Jerusalem newspaper said, asking not to be quoted by name. “The Saudis are squeezing Arafat for political reasons. Al Fajr might survive if it went independent, but it has been on the PLO payroll so long it is hard to become something else.”
Although publisher Ajluni denied that the paper depended on PLO subsidies, present and former staffers said that as much as 90% of its revenues came from the PLO in recent years.
The PLO, in fact, has found a welcome in the pages of the independent newspaper Al Quds, regarded as Jerusalem’s best Arabic-language paper, and Al Quds continues to sell as many as 45,000 copies a day despite the closing of the occupied territories.
“Al Fajr’s closure is part economics and finance,” a senior editor at the threatened paper said, “but most it is politics--politics here in Jerusalem and the West Bank, politics in Tunis (PLO headquarters), politics between us and Tunis, between Tunis and Ajluni. . . . It is convoluted and almost endless, but that is Palestinian politics.”
Ajluni, who took over the paper in 1974 after the disappearance and presumed murder of his brother-in-law Yusuf Nasser, said he had asked staff members to take pay cuts and work fewer hours to keep the paper going, but they refused.