The Palestinian Authority is ignoring calls to lift a ban on dozens of news websites and social media channels that were blocked more than six months ago, raising concern among Palestinian journalists that their leaders are still working to muzzle critical voices. (Images source: iStock)
The Palestinian Authority (PA) is ignoring calls to lift a ban on dozens of news websites and social media channels that were blocked more than six months ago, raising concern among Palestinian journalists that their leaders are still working to muzzle critical voices.
The PA's refusal to comply with the appeals coincided with World Press Freedom Day, a worldwide event marked on May 3 to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom, to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.
While journalists around the world were celebrating World Press Freedom Day, their Palestinians colleagues were still fighting against restrictions imposed on them by the PA and its leaders. Nearly three decades after the signing of the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the PA, the Palestinians still do not have a free and independent media.
On October 17, 2019, the Palestinian Magistrate Court in Ramallah ordered local internet providers to block access to 59 news websites in accordance with a request from the Palestinian attorney general's office. The order was issued under the Palestinian Cybercrime Law, which allows authorities to direct internet service providers to block websites that allegedly threaten national security, civil peace, public order, or public morals.
According to Palestinian sources, the court order targets websites, blogs and Facebook pages that oppose the PA and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, as well as several senior Palestinian officials.
The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate (PJS) has denounced the order as a "black day in the history of Palestinian journalism and a massacre against freedom of expression."
Although the six-month order expired on April 16, it is evident that the "black day in the history of Palestinian journalism" has not ended.
A number of Palestinian human rights and media organizations have appealed to the PA to lift the ban on the websites and social media channels. Their appeals, however, have so far been ignored by the PA government.
The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedom (MADA) urged the PA government to "respect freedom of expression in Palestine" and lift the ban.
Addameer (Arabic for conscience), another Palestinian human rights group that campaigns in support of Palestinian prisoners convicted of security offenses against Israel, said that the continued blocking of the websites and social media channels, despite the expiration of the court order, constitutes a "violation of local laws and international treaties, as well as a violation of freedom of expression."
The group said in a statement that "the right to freedom of opinion and expression is a basic human right that no democratic system exists without it" and added that "this means that people have the right to endorse the opinions and ideas they want without being subjected to any pressure or coercion."
The PJS and the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR) also joined the calls on the PA government to lift the ban on the news websites and social media platforms.
In a letter to PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, the two groups complained that all the sites covered by the court were still blocked and inaccessible although the order was supposed to have expired:
"The continued blocking of websites despite the expiry of the court order is a dangerous sign, constitutes a serious threat to the right to freedom of expression, and explicitly contradicts the promises of the president and the Palestinian government related to human rights and public freedoms."
Ahmed Yousef, an editor with Ultra Palestine, said that when his news website reached out to its internet service provider to ask why the ban has not been removed, it was told that it was up to Abbas to make a decision on this matter because of the state of emergency he declared to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Legal experts, however, have suggested that the state of emergency is unrelated to the court order to block the websites, Yousef added.
Ahmed Nusra, a representative of ICHR, said that the internet service providers should have lifted the ban in the absence of a decision to extend it. Earlier this year, he added, another Palestinian court turned down an appeal to lift the ban on the grounds that it was not authorized to look into the case.
Palestinian journalists and media organizations have expressed fear that blocking the websites will pave the way for further crackdowns by PA security forces on anyone who opposes Abbas's policies and decisions.
Although the number of Palestinian journalists targeted by the PA security forces has declined in the past few months, the crackdown on freedom of expression has hardly ceased.
The latest victim of this crackdown is journalist Anas Hawwari, who last week was arrested and severely beaten by PA security officers
Hawwari was arrested at the entrance to the Palestinian city of Tulkarem after a "quarrel" with a PA security officer. The journalist's family and lawyer said he was severely beaten by several police officers during and after his arrest. On May 18, a Palestinian court ordered him remanded into custody for 15 days on charges of "assaulting and offending public servants (the police officers)."
Shortly after assuming office a year ago, Shtayyeh, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, pledged that he would be "faithful to freedom of expression and the media." He also promised to "accept constructive criticism and enact laws to protect citizens and journalists."
The number of Palestinian journalists targeted by the PA may have dropped, but it is obvious that most of these reporters practice self-censorship and take extreme care to avoid angering their leaders.
That is most likely why most Palestinian journalists living in PA-controlled areas rarely, if ever, report on issues that reflect negatively on Palestinian leaders. The only freedom of expression they are allowed to practice is one that includes heaping praise on Palestinian leaders while bashing Israel on a daily basis.
Some of these journalists are acting out of fear of being arrested, harassed or losing their jobs. Others might self-censor out of ideology. For them, the only dirty laundry worth hanging out in public is covered with dirt that they can dig up about Israel. Those journalists probably see themselves as foot soldiers in the Palestinian national struggle to destroy Israel and replace it with yet another extremist Muslim state.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem, is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at Gatestone Institute.