Palestinian decree curbs social media expression

Journalists demand that media be spared the fallout from split between Palestinian factions.

LONDON - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has clamped down on social media and news websites — the main outlets for debate and dissent in the West Bank — with a vaguely worded decree that critics said allows his government to jail anyone on charges of harming “national unity” or the “social fabric.”
Rights activists said the edict, issued in July without prior public debate, is perhaps the most significant step yet by the Abbas government to restrict freedom of expression in the autonomous Palestinian enclaves of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
A Palestinian prosecutor denied the decree was intended to stifle dissent and insisted that a new law on electronic crimes was needed to close legal loopholes that allowed offenders, such as hackers, to go unpunished.
However, the government blocked 30 websites in recent weeks, Palestinian Centre for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) said. Most of the sites were affiliated with Abbas’s main rivals — former aide-turned-political foe Mohammed Dahlan and the Islamist movement Hamas, MADA said. A few of the blocked sites supported the Islamic State (ISIS).
Five journalists working for news outlets linked to Hamas were charged with violating the new law but they were released after Hamas released a Palestinian Authority-linked reporter.
Hamas has also been taking steps against journalists and bloggers in the Gaza Strip.
“The Palestinian split between Fatah and Hamas and between the strip and the West Bank is very much affecting human rights, including freedom of expression, and recently we have been seeing it intensifying,” Shawan Jabarin, director of Palestinian rights organisation Al-Haq, told Haaretz.
The worsening situation was criticised by Amnesty International.
“The last few months have seen a sharp escalation in attacks by the Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, on journalists and the media in a bid to silence dissent. This is a chilling setback for freedom of expression in [the Palestinian territories],” said Magdalena Mughrabi, deputy director, Middle East and North Africa, at Amnesty International.
The two factions have been unable to reconcile in a decade and are often at loggerheads. The journalists’ syndicate called for media to be spared the fallout from the split between the Palestinian factions.
“It is well-known that Hamas does not balk at the idea of hostage-taking but now it would appear that West Bank security agencies trained by the EU and the US are also resorting to mafia-style methods,” wrote Inge Gunther in the German website
Ammar Dweik, head of the government-appointed Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights, said the new law was “one of the worst” since the Palestinian autonomy government was established in 1994.
The decree stipulates sentences of up to life in prison for those who use digital means for a range of offences, including endangering the safety of the state or public order as well as harming national unity or social peace.
“At times, according to interviews conducted by the Observer, the ostensible reasons for arrest have been unquestionably petty, not least the detention of one journalist for taking a picture of prime minister Rami Hamdallah’s convoy on his mobile phone,” wrote Peter Beaumont in the Observer.
Abbas, 82, issued the decree at a time when he is facing new domestic challenges to his rule.
Dahlan and Hamas overcame their rivalry to team up against Abbas with an emerging power-sharing deal in Gaza, the territory Abbas’s Fatah movement lost to Hamas in 2007.
Polls routinely indicate that two-thirds of Palestinian respondents say they want Abbas to resign. He was elected to a five-year term in 2005 but stayed in office, arguing that political disagreement with Hamas prevented new elections. With Parliament paralysed because of the political split, Abbas has ruled by decree.
Ibrahim Hamodeh, a prosecutor in the attorney general’s office, said the decree was needed to go after those committing electronic crimes, such as hackers and those engaged in online libel.
“There is nothing about (restricting) freedom of expression in the new law,” Hamodeh told the Associated Press (AP).
“The law criminalises distortion, defamation, slandering,” he said. “One can criticise the president and his policy but one cannot accuse the president or anyone else of treason or make fun of him in an image or something like that.”
Critics said the vague terms in the decree are problematic.
It enables the government to jail anyone for any reason, Ghazi Bani Odeh, a researcher at MADA, told the AP. “It opens the door wide to more violations of freedom of expression,” he said.
The Palestinian journalists’ association in the West Bank, though dominated by Fatah, said it would push back against the decree.
An electronic crimes law is needed but the association said it was concerned about articles that touch on freedom of expression and freedom of reporting, Mohammed Laham, an official in the group, told the AP.
In 2016, Freedom House classified the media environment in the West Bank and Gaza as “not free,” ranking it below Iraq and Zimbabwe and level with Russia.