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 say allows his government to jail anyone on charges of harming “national unity” or the “social fabric.”
Rights activists say the edict, issued without prior public debate last month, is perhaps the most significant step yet by Abbas’ government to restrict freedom of expression in the autonomous Palestinian enclaves of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The government has blocked 30 websites in the past month, according to the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms, or Mada.
Five journalists working for news outlets linked to Hamas were detained this week and charged with violating the new law, according the lawyer of one of those arrested and an official in the association of Palestinian journalists.
Separately, four other journalists were called for questioning about social media posts critical of government policy.
One of those summoned, photo journalist Fadi Arouri, who works for the Chinese news agency Xinhua, said he was shown his Facebook posts and was told that the authorities are concerned “these expressions could lead to disorder in the society.”
The new decree stipulates prison terms ranging from one year to life for those who use digital means for a range of all-encompassing offenses. The list includes endangering the safety of the state or the public order as well as harming national unity or social peace.
Here’s the part I like:
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 on-line libel.
“There is nothing about (restricting) freedom of expression in the new law,” Hamodeh told The Associated Press.
“The law criminalizes distortion, defamation, slandering,” he said. “One can criticize 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.”
I have rarely seen such a complete contradiction in three consecutive sentences. “We don’t restrict freedom of expression. we are only going after people who say things we don’t like!”
The specifics of the law are actually chilling. According to this site, it is a very wide ranging law that includes:
Article 51 of the law states that, “if a crime is committed online and harms ‘national unity’ or ‘social harmony,’ it will be punishable” by hard labor, ranging between three and 15 years, a sentence impacting all those who partook in the crime.
Articles 32 mandates internet service providers to cooperate with security agencies by collecting, storing, and sharing users’ information data for at least three years, in addition to blocking any website on the orders of the judiciary.
Article 40 allows the Attorney General or one of his assistants to request the court to issue an order to block any website within 24 hours.
Article 16 states that anyone who violates ‘public manners’ online could be sentenced to prison for one year, or fined up to 7,000 USD, or both.
Article 20 similarly punishes any internet user that owns or manages a website that publishes “news that endanger state safety, its public order, or internal or external security.” Anyone who shares these news could be imprisoned for a year or fined up to around 1,400 USD.
Article 31 outlaws any attempt to bypass website blocking or use any system or app to access a blocked website.
Articles 35 mandates the court to give the Public Prosecutor’s office the right to monitor and record online communications as well as obtaining any log-in data it deems necessary for investigations.
So not only does it chill expression, but it also punishes those who try to read things that are banned.
While it is a bit surprising to see AP publish this, a quick look through Google News and Bing News shows that only Voice of America and Fox News have published this as of this writing.
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