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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Mahmoud Abbas decrees sweeping internet speech restrictions

Decree by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas imposes fines, prison and hard labor on Palestinians who violate “public manners” or harm “social harmony” with online comments.Wisam HashlamounAPA images

Charlotte Silver-9 August 2017

Palestinian media and human rights groups are calling on the Palestinian Authority to suspend the new “Electronic Crimes” law that critics say is a sweeping attack on the right to free expression and privacy.

Meanwhile, an Israeli minister is facing difficulties in his effort to shut down Al Jazeera.
The law was approved in secrecy by PA leader Mahmoud Abbas on 24 June. Without any public discussion, it reportedly went into effect just two weeks later.

Groups including the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, the Independent Committee for Human Rights and the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA), have all denounced the law, warning it will further erode Palestinians’ rights.

Social Media Exchange, a group that monitors laws that affect digital rights in the Arab world, translated the most troubling parts of Abbas’ decree.

It stipulates that acts online that harm “national unity” or “social harmony” will be punishable by hard labor for three to 15 years.

The law allows for anyone to be imprisoned for one year and fined up to $7,000 for violating “public manners” online.

It requires internet service providers to cooperate with Palestinian intelligence agencies, and collect, store and share user information.

It also empowers the PA attorney general to block any website and allows the public prosecutor “to monitor and record online communications” deemed “necessary for investigations.”

Writing for Global Voices, digital rights researcher Marwa Fatafta reports that the law extends to Palestinians living abroad, though it is not clear how it would be enforced on people outside the occupied West Bank.

PA crackdown on journalists

Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which work together closely to control the Palestinian population under military occupation, already jail Palestinians for their postings on social media.

The decree’s enactment comes as the PA oversees a wave of press violations including arrests for statements made on social media.

At the beginning of June, the Palestinian Authority arrested 23-year-old Nassar Jaradat for posting on his Facebook page a call for a “people’s revolution” against the Fatah leadership – Abbas’ political faction.

This week, PA intelligence agencies in the occupied West Bank arrested four journalists from several local outlets, accusing them of “leaking sensitive information.”

Speaking at a recent forum of groups concerned about the new decree, Mousa Rimawi, the director of MADA, noted that the PA’s press violations exceeded Israel’s in June and that authorities have blocked access to 29 news websites that belong to political critics.

Trouble with Al Jazeera

Meanwhile, Israel’s communications minister Ayoub Kara is running into difficulties as he moves forward with his promise to shut down Al Jazeera’s Jerusalem bureau.

Following in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that have mounted a campaign against Qatar and its media network, Kara and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have accused Al Jazeera of “incitement” and vowed to shut it down.

Amnesty International has called Israel’s attempt to shut down Al Jazeera a “chilling message that Israeli authorities will not tolerate critical coverage.”

“This is a brazen attack on media freedom in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories,” Magdalena Mughrabi, Amnesty’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director, said in a statement on Monday.

But the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz reports that Kara is meeting resistance as he attempts to shutter the network in Israel, starting with his request that the Government Press Office revoke the credentials of Al Jazeera journalists.

According to Haaretz, the Government Press Office does not have the authority to revoke press credentials. Israeli security agencies would have to first make the recommendation on the basis that Al Jazeera would “endanger national security.”

“I have contacted these agencies, asking for a professional opinion regarding Al Jazeera,” said Government Press Office director Nitzan Chen, who noted that credentials will not be revoked without an “an orderly hearing, as specified by regulations.”

Kara has asked broadcast companies for help, but they have so far failed to express any willingness to remove Al Jazeera from their service.

He has also asked public security minister Gilad Erdan for assistance, but Erdan referred him to the Israeli police, who sent Kara back to the public security ministry.

This leaves Kara with the option to try to pass an amendment to the law, a process that would not begin until the fall.

Bending over backwards

During Israel’s regular attacks on Gaza, including the last major one three years ago that killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, Al Jazeera has regularly provided Israeli officials with air time to justify their lethal attacks on Palestinians.

Amid the recent increase in tension around the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel interviewed Yoav Mordechai, the Israeli military officer who governs the occupied West Bank.

Despite the network extensively providing Israel with a platform, Kara remains committed to shutting Al Jazeera down, stating: “The safety of our citizens and their well-being supersedes freedom of expression during times of terror.”

“The freedom of expression is not the freedom to incite and foment strife,” he added. “Even democracy has its limits.”