JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- When editor Maher al-Alami ran a flattering story about Yasser Arafat on page 8 of his East Jerusalem Arabic newspaper, he was summoned by Palestinian undercover police. They wanted to know why the story was not on page 1.
His explanation apparently was not persuasive: six days later, Mr. Alami is still being held in confinement in Jericho.
"He is in my 'hotel,' " Jabril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Preventive Security Service in Jericho, said yesterday. He added, laughing, "I am brainwashing him."
Human rights groups say that the arrest is no laughing matter. They see it as disregard for freedom of the press and an ominous sign for democracy under Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority, just as the Palestinians enter their first election campaign for a permanent self-rule body.
"Any action like this has very negative repercussions, externally and internally," said Hanan Ashrawi, once a spokesman for the Palestinians and now a candidate for the Palestinian Council.
"It shouldn't have happened," she said. "It's a very clear violation of freedom of the press, an attempt at intimidation, and an illegal act."
Reporters Without Frontiers, which recently arrived here to monitor the Palestinian election Jan. 20, joined in protest at Mr. Alami's confinement.
"Coming as it does during the election, this shows how Arafat really doesn't want a free press," said D'Jallal Malti, a representative of the organization in Paris. "They want a press under control, just like in any other Arab country like Syria or Iraq."
Mr. Alami, 50, already had a large photograph and three stories about Mr. Arafat on that day's front page, but that apparently was not enough.
His arrest is one of a succession of heavy-handed attempts to stifle free discourse since Mr. Arafat's Palestinian Authority began operation in the Gaza Strip 19 months ago.
Palestinian security police have jailed Arab reporters for critical reporting, temporarily closed down newspapers, ordered a ban on certain stories, threatened editors and jailed Palestinian human rights activists.
Many of these actions have been carried out by Mr. Rajoub, whose Preventive Security Service is the most visible of several undercover police forces set up by Mr. Arafat, whose Palestinian Authority is to be in control of Gaza, seven West Bank cities, and hundreds of villages by next summer, under terms of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
Mr. Rajoub's base is in Palestinian-controlled Jericho, and Israeli authorities have been loath to interfere, even when his reach has extended to Jerusalem.
On one occasion, Mr. Rajoub's men allegedly kidnapped a Palestinian from a Jerusalem hotel to question him about a woman with whom he was involved. That caused a flap with Israeli authorities, however, and more often Mr. Rajoub now sends word "requesting" that people he wants voluntarily come to Jericho.
"My father got a call Sunday night from Rajoub saying it was Chairman Arafat's orders that he come to Jericho at 8 a.m. the next day," said Mr. Alami's 24-year-old daughter, Ismat Alami. "When he got there, Rajoub took his Israeli ID, so he can't leave Jericho.
"This is not an example of democracy. It is very wrong," she said.
Mr. Alami is news editor of Al-Quds, an independent daily published in Arab East Jerusalem. The paper is usually supportive of Mr. Arafat, but Mr. Alami also writes a personal column that occasionally is sarcastically critical of the Palestinian Authority.
Mr. Alami, a journalist with the paper for 27 years, prepared the Sunday edition, which had three stories about Mr. Arafat on page one, along with a large picture of the Palestinian leader's entry into Bethlehem Saturday. Ms. Alami said her father decided a fourth story about Mr. Arafat should go on an inside page.
The story was extremely flattering to Mr. Arafat. It quoted the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Diodoros I, comparing Mr. Arafat to Omar Ben al-Khatib, a respected Muslim caliph of the 7th century A.D.
'A security matter'
Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights investigator, said Mr. Rajoub threatened to close the newspaper Sunday after seeing the article on page 8 but agreed with the publisher's request to arrest the editor instead. The publisher, Marwan Abu-Zulef, was unavailable for comment.
Officials of the Palestinian Authority shied away from questions about the incident, referring questions to Mr. Rajoub.
"It's a security matter, it's not in my hands," said Nabil Abu-Rudinah, a spokesman for Mr. Arafat in Gaza. "It could be [Mr. Alami] is just being held for questioning. We'll wait a couple of days and see if he's still being held."
Mr. Arafat, he said, "would be informed about it tomorrow. He is not in his office today."
Mr. Rajoub, contacted by telephone in Jericho, dismissed the matter as a joke.
"He's not in custody. He's here in my hotel," said Mr. Rajoub. Mr. Alami was called in because "I think there was a minor problem. I'm doing my best to solve it."
Asked to describe the problem, Mr. Rajoub said, "I don't think it's the time to talk about it. He will be free to go, maybe today, maybe tomorrow."
Mr. Alami's daughter said her father is being held in an old military barracks in Jericho. Family members were able to visit him this week, and he said he was not mistreated but could not leave, she said.
Officials of the Israeli Police said yesterday they have not had any complaint about Mr. Alami's disappearance but added that they are looking into the matter.
Fears for democracy
Questions about whether Palestinian autonomy will mean democracy have grown as Palestinians prepare for their first election.
About 800,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have registered to elect a legislative Palestinian Council and a president.
"I think Arafat already has succeeded in shutting the mouth of the press," said Mr. Eid, who lives in a Palestinian refugee camp in East Jerusalem.
"If you succeed to shut the mouth of the press, you have already killed democracy," he said. "I think it already died under the Palestinian Authority."
No Palestinian newspaper has reported what happened to Mr. Alami, he noted.
"I think they are afraid. This Colonel Rajoub is behaving as a gangster," said Mr. Malti. "After you see what happened to this journalist, who is going to defend them?"