Palestinian journalists have decided to renew their campaign against the Palestinian Authority's assault on freedom of expression.
The decision came after the Palestinian Authority (PA) filed charges against journalist Tareq Abu Zeid, for "incitement" and "jeopardizing the security of the State of Palestine."
Abu Zeid is the latest victim of a new Palestinian law targeting journalists and social media activists.
Earlier this week, a Palestinian magistrate's court in Nablus, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, decided to refer the case of Abu Zeid to the PA's Grand Criminal Court. Abu Zeid, who was arrested in August 2017 for 15 days, is facing charges over Facebook posts criticizing the Palestinian Authority. If convicted, he faces a minimum sentence of one year in prison and a fine.
Four other Palestinian journalists who were arrested by the Palestinian Authority around the same time are facing similar charges. However, it is still not clear when they will be brought to trial. The four are: Mamdouh Hamamreh, Kutaiba Qassem, Amer Abu Arafeh and Ahmed Halaikah. Many other journalists and Facebook users have also been summoned for interrogation over the past few months on suspicion of "incitement."
The five journalists were arrested shortly after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas signed the controversial Palestinian cyber-crime law in June 2017. Critics say the new law is aimed at silencing and intimidating journalists and political opponents of the PA and its president.
Article 4 of the law states:
- Any person who has intentionally and unlawfully accessed any electronic system or network, has abused any information technology or part thereof, or has exceeded the authorized entry shall be liable to either imprisonment, a fine between two hundred and one thousand Jordanian dinars, or a combination of the two.
- If the act specified in paragraph (1) of this article is committed against any official statement by the government, the culprit shall be punished by imprisonment for a period of at least six months, or by a fine of no less than two hundred Jordanian dinars...
The same article states that if the "abuse" affects government data, the sentence shall be "a minimum of five years of temporary hard labor and will have to pay a fine of no less than five thousand Jordanian dinars..."
Article 20 of the law states:
- Anyone who creates or manages a website or an information technology platform that aims to publish news that would endanger the integrity of the Palestinian state, the public order or the internal or external security of the State, shall be punished by imprisonment for a period of at least one year or by a fine of no less than one thousand Jordanian dinars and no more than five thousand Jordanian dinars or by a combination of both punishments.
- Any person who propagates the kinds of news mentioned above by any means, including broadcasting or publishing them, shall be sentenced to a maximum of one year in prison or be required to pay a fine of no less than two hundred Jordanian dinars and no more than one thousand Jordanian dinars or be subjected to both penalties.
The new law has drawn sharp criticism from Palestinian journalists and human rights organizations.
However, the Palestinian Authority has thus far chosen to ignore the criticism.
A few weeks after Abbas approved the law, the Palestinian security forces summoned the chairman of the Palestinian Postal Service Workers' Union, Emad Temeiza, and interrogated him about posts he had published on Facebook. Temeiza was forced to sign a document in which he pledged to delete the posts. He was also told that he will remain under surveillance and that he may be summoned again, and charges may be brought against him at any time.
"The law represents a serious curtailment on privacy and freedom of expression," according to ADDAMEER, the Palestinian Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association.
"The most troubling aspects of this document are its vague definitions of what constitutes a punishable offence, its extension of punishment to any individual who assists or agrees with what the decree considers a felony, and the clear attacks on dissenters, journalists and leakers. The combination of the three means that an ever-increasingly authoritarian regime has the legal backing necessary to effectively crackdown on any form of digital dissent."
The group pointed out that the Palestinian Authority has already used the new law to block 30 websites, most of which are associated with Abbas's political rivals, including Hamas and exiled Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan. ADDAMEER further cautioned:
"The fact that these websites are run by political rivals to the current ruling faction of the Palestinian Authority indicates that these laws are being used, and will continue to be used, to stifle free speech, legitimate dissent, and discussions regarding the state of politics in Palestine.
Such affronts to the freedom of the press were escalated with the arrest of five journalists, who were accused of 'leaking information to hostile entities'..."
Ammar Dweik, head of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights, said the new law is "one of the worst" since the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994. He said that the law is a "big setback to freedoms" because it paves the way for cracking down on activists and journalists.
Palestinian journalists and human rights groups expressed concern that the decision to prosecute Tareq Abu Zeid before the Grand Criminal Court was aimed at imposing a heavy sentence and fine against him. Abu Zeid's lawyer, Ibrahim Amer, said that Palestinian lawyers have decided to boycott the court, which specializes in serious offenses committed against the security of the "State of Palestine." The lawyer noted that Abu Zeid's only "crime" was posting a critical comment (against the Palestinian Authority) on Facebook.
Even the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, whose leaders are associated with the Palestinian Authority, has expressed outrage over the decision to bring Abu Zeid to trial. The syndicate said that the decision was aimed at "intimidating journalists and poses a real threat to freedom of expression and the media." The syndicate also warned that the decision to press charges against Abu Zeid is an indication that "Palestine is headed toward becoming a repressive regime, where citizens live in fear." The group also renewed its appeal to the PA to revoke or revise the electronic crimes law.
Another Palestinian journalist group denounced the "ongoing and systematic campaign waged by the PA in the West Bank against freedom of the media and expression." The group called on the PA to halt its "arbitrary and repressive" measures against Palestinian journalists.
The Palestinian Authority's crackdown on freedom of expression does not come as a surprise to those who are familiar with the inner workings of the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. Since its establishment in 1994, the PA, first under Yasser Arafat and later under Mahmoud Abbas, has proven that it is no different from other Arab dictatorships that target journalists and political opponents.
The Palestinian Authority claims it does not tolerate "incitement." The "incitement" it is referring to, however, is criticism of Abbas and his cronies. In fact, the PA tolerates incitement quite well, and has spent decades driving such incitement -- when it is directed against Israel and the US. Indeed, Palestinians are free to incite against Israel and the United States day and night. Anyone, however, who dares to discuss the corruption that defines Abbas and his Palestinian government will find, as did Tareq Abu Zeid, that such "incitement" is rewarded with repression.
Bassam Tawil is a Muslim based in the Middle East.