September 10, 2017

Palestinian decree curbs social media expression

Clamp down. Palestinian youths check their facebook accounts at an internet café in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AFP)

London - Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has clamped down on social media and news websites — the main outlets for de¬bate and dissent in the West Bank — with a vaguely worded decree that critics said allows his government to jail anyone on charges of harm¬ing “national unity” or the “social fabric.”

Rights activists said the edict, issued in July without prior pub¬lic 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 De¬velopment 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 Islam¬ist movement Hamas, MADA said. A few of the blocked sites support¬ed 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, in¬cluding freedom of expression, and recently we have been seeing it in¬tensifying,” Shawan Jabarin, direc¬tor of Palestinian rights organisa¬tion Al-Haq, told Haaretz.

The worsening situation was crit¬icised 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 jour¬nalists 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 Af¬rica, at Amnesty International.

The two factions have been una¬ble to reconcile in a decade and are often at loggerheads. The journal¬ists’ 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 meth¬ods,” wrote Inge Gunther in the German website

Ammar Dweik, head of the gov¬ernment-appointed Palestinian In¬dependent Commission for Human Rights, said the new law was “one of the worst” since the Palestinian autonomy government was estab¬lished in 1994.

The decree stipulates sentences of up to life in prison for those who use digital means for a range of of¬fences, including endangering the safety of the state or public order as well as harming national unity or social peace.

“At times, according to inter¬views conducted by the Observer, the ostensible reasons for arrest have been unquestionably petty, not least the detention of one jour¬nalist 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 domes¬tic 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 prosecu¬tor 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 (restrict¬ing) freedom of expression in the new law,” Hamodeh told the Asso¬ciated Press (AP).

“The law criminalises distortion, defamation, slandering,” he said. “One can criticise the president and his policy but one cannot ac¬cuse 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 ex¬pression,” he said.

The Palestinian journalists’ as¬sociation in the West Bank, though dominated by Fatah, said it would push back against the decree.

An electronic crimes law is need¬ed but the association said it was concerned about articles that touch on freedom of expression and free¬dom of reporting, Mohammed La¬ham, an official in the group, told the AP.

In 2016, Freedom House classi¬fied the media environment in the West Bank and Gaza as “not free,” ranking it below Iraq and Zimba¬bwe and level with Russia.