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memri
November 7, 2019 No.
8353

Decision Of Ramallah Court To Block Opposition Websites Sparks Criticism From Palestinian Journalists, Palestinian Authority Officials

On October 17, 2019, the Magistrate Court in Ramallah complied with the request of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Prosecutor General, Akram Al-Khatib, to block 59 websites and Facebook accounts on the grounds that they contain "expressions and images that threaten national security and public order, violate the norms of order and decorum, incite rioting among the Palestinian public," and "attack and insult the symbols of the PA."[1] Many of the sites that have been blocked are identified with the rivals of Palestinian President Mahmoud 'Abbas, and especially with Hamas and with the camp of Muhammad Dahlan, which frequently voice harsh criticism against the PA's policy.[2]

The decision evoked outrage among journalists, intellectuals, activists for a free press and Palestinian civil society organizations, and also from some PA officials. Palestinian Journalists Union chairman Nasser Abu Bakr called this "a black day in the history of Palestinian journalism," adding that the decision violated freedom of expression and was politically motivated.[3] The Journalists Union itself, and the PA's Independent Commission for Human Rights, appealed to the PA Constitutional Court to rescind the decision.[4] PLO Executive Committee member Hanan 'Ashrawi expressed amazement at the decision, and demanded that the relevant authorities revoke it and also reexamine the PA cybercrime law.[5]

Even PA Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh opposed the blocking of the sites, on the grounds that it contravened the principle of freedom of speech, which is enshrined in PA law and in international conventions, and called to cancel it.[6] The PA government spokesman issued a statement on a similar vein.[7]  However, it is unclear whether this position of the government, which contrasts with that of the General Prosecution and the PA court, reflects authentic disagreement within the PA leadership on the legitimate ways to fight the opposition, or is merely meant to create an impression, especially in the West, of Palestinian support for free speech, so as to avoid international condemnation.

In this context, it should be noted that in recent months, PA President 'Abbas has made numerous changes to the Palestinian judiciary system, for example by forcing judges to retire and by dissolving the PA High Judicial Council and appointing a temporary council in its stead.[8] Some regarded these measures as flagrant interference in the judiciary, which is meant to be independent, and as undermining the separation of powers.[9] Moreover, on past occasions 'Abbas has not hesitated to use the PA judiciary to fight his political rivals, for example in December 2018, when the PA Constitutional Court, which he established, disbanded the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), in which Hamas had a majority.[10] Nor is this the first time the PA has blocked websites of its opponents. In June 2017, then-prosecutor-general Ahmad Barak ordered that 11 sites associated with Hamas and the Dahlan Camp be blocked.[11]

Opposition to the court's decision was also expressed in articles in the Palestinian press, with the exception of the PA mouthpiece Al-Hayat Al-Jadida. Arguing that the blocking of the sites reflected an obsolete and undemocratic mentality, and that a free and bold press was actually a source of strength for the state, they urged the PA to promote free public debate instead of suppressing dissent.

The following are translated excerpts from two of these articles. 


Cartoon in the daily Al-Quds on the decision to block the websites (Al-Quds, Jerusalem, October 22, 2019)

Palestinian Columnist: Even Third World Countries Realize That Blocking Websites Is Pointless

In his column in the PA daily Al-Ayyam, 'Abd Al-Ghani Salameh likened the Ramallah court's decision to the attempts by 20th century dictatorial regimes to restrict the freedom of the press, attempts that only hastened their downfall. This mentality, he said, is obsolete and must pass from the world, since the most stable and prosperous states are actually the ones that have a robust opposition and a free press. He wrote: "The totalitarian and dictatorial regimes of the world all used to strictly censor the media, prevent any exposure to foreign media, and force their security policy and their political and ideological perceptions upon the citizenry. This was achieved by means of an obsequious press and a group of recruited journalists and writers, [and by means of] a vapid official discourse [consisting of] revolutionary slogans and overused pre-prepared statements that glorified the supreme leader and the state's many achievements, vilified the enemies of the revolution and the homeland, and cursed the opposition, [accusing it of serving] shady foreign agendas. Despite all this, the peoples rose up and rebelled, and the [dictatorial] governments fell and were replaced.

"Today, after the communications revolution, in the age of satellite channels, the internet, social media and smartphones, and an unprecedentedly open [flow of information] among the various parts of the world, it is no longer possible to censor people's awareness or to direct them. The governments can no longer restrict the citizens' freedom of choice and determine their ideological or political orientation... Even in the Third World governments have realized that there is no point in blocking websites or restricting the flow of information, news and images. Only North Korea has not yet joined the [modern] age, and it seems that the Magistrate Court in Ramallah regards it as an inspiring model for emulation...

"Attempts to exclude the opposition through [measures of] state oppression [such as] gagging people, filling prisons with protesters and activists, and assassinating [dissidents]... have always failed. In fact, such measures usually boomerang against the government, and a brief glance at the Arab Spring revolutions is sufficient to clarify this picture.

"The safe, stable and prosperous countries are the ones that have a strong opposition, active [political] parties and labor unions, freedom of speech and of thought, and a powerful press. In these countries nobody can even conceive of a military coup taking place, and in the rare cases where it does occur, it [tends to] fail. The masses of today are not the masses of yesterday. Today people are open and aware, and understand what is happening around them... [The protests] in Lebanon and Iraq are the latest examples of this. In the Israeli Knesset, for example, the second-largest party becomes the official opposition, and not only is it not oppressed, but it is granted many rights and a role in decision-making. It is no secret that the strength and resilience of a country are rooted in the existence of a free and bold press, that [can] criticize any senior figure, and whoever follows the [Israeli] Hebrew press sees how every journalist and writer dares to write whatever he wants and to criticize any minister.

"[Conversely,] in Ramallah, the Magistrate Court decided to block 59 online news websites. This decision sparked a considerable wave of condemnation, notably including a statement by the [PA] government itself calling to reverse the decision. The [Palestinian] Journalists Union described the decision as an assassination of freedom of speech and thought and a black day in the history of Palestinian journalism...

"The most appropriate way to fortify public order is first of all to investigate the reasons for its fragility, address them as much as possible and invite public discourse that is modern and appealing in [both] form and content, which respects the public's intelligence and [its various political] orientations. As for fake news, rumors and smear campaigns, they should not be handled by blocking [websites] but through transparency, high-quality media performance, open communication with the people about every subject, and a law ensuring freedom of information. The government must realize that gagging people always produces the opposite result.

"The approach of the [Ramallah] court, which regards itself as the guardian of the people and thinks that the citizens are a herd of minors in need of supervision and guidance, reflects a paternalistic perception that belongs to the past. The very act of blocking [media outlets] indicates poor performance and a lack of [mutual] trust between the government and the public, and exposes the extent of [the court's] ignorance of modern technology. Experience shows that no country has ever successfully implemented a policy of blocking [the media]. Today almost every citizen has social media accounts, and every report, article or image that is blocked can be downloaded to one's personal computer and disseminated [even] more widely... Blocking such a large number of sites contravenes all the past governments' commitments and understandings with the Journalists Union, and also contravenes the promises of the current prime minister, [Muhammad Shtayyeh], to ensure the freedom of the media. This is also an opportunity to mention the cybercrime law, which has become a sword hanging over the necks of the journalists and columnists, and also blackens the image of Palestine in terms of protecting journalists and the freedom of speech. It is inconceivable that this law should be implemented using tools dating back to the 1960s and 1970s! This is a wretched mentality, and it is time for it to pass from the world."[12]

Palestinian Writer: If We Fail To Allow Democratic Discourse, We Will Surely Fail To Achieve National Liberation

Another Al-Ayyam columnist, 'Abd Al-Majid Sweilem, expressed understanding for the court's decision to block the websites, which, he said, are waging a systematic campaign to sabotage the Palestinian national enterprise and some of them are even supported by Israel. He stressed, however, that gagging all opposition media was an unacceptable and oppressive measure, and that the solution actually lay in developing a culture of democratic discourse in the PA. He wrote: "The timing of this decision – amid the democratic momentum [we are seeing] in several neighboring Arab countries, and in light of the legitimate leadership's determination to hold elections in order to thwart the intentions… of those who [propose] alternative plans or substitutes for the Palestinian national enterprise, [and also in order to thwart] the regional agendas intended to dismantle and dissolve the unity and legitimacy of the PLO in the eyes of the Palestinian people[13] – [this timing] will place us all, [the Palestinian] people and national leadership, in a very difficult political situation, and will provide all our rivals with new ammunition with which to advance their plans...

"We all know how these websites and [social media] accounts are used to harm our national enterprise, and we all follow the huge amounts of lies, fabrications and rumors that some of them disseminate... We all know that some of them are operated by corrupt and even hostile [elements]. In fact, we all know there is sufficient evidence that some of them are funded by Israel, directly or indirectly. At the same time, we also know that some of them [just] disagree with us, but are not our enemies, and are entitled to wage a [political] campaign against us, just as we wage such a campaign against them...

"Some of us perhaps know that the list of [websites] that have been blocked… does not encompass the entire campaign that is being waged against us, against our [national] enterprise, and against our rights and goals, and that there is daily plotting aimed at blackening our image, harming our [national] identity and destroying our reputation. This [campaign, which] is organized and funded in a skilled and professional manner, at the highest levels… is actually another reason to enhance our national awareness, improve our performance and examine our consciousness, not to ban and block [websites] and take other oppressive measures.

"Blocking [websites] is a sign of helplessness, not of national strength. It is [part of] an obsolete culture, which does not suit our situation and circumstances, and plays into the hands of all those who attack us... Why not [establish] websites [promoting national] awareness and truth, skilled at responding and [proposing an alternative] discourse, which will be able to present proof, arguments and evidence [against our detractors]?

"[And] why are we on the defensive in the first place, and blocking [websites]? Is it because they [i.e., the opposition] are democratic and we are not?! I say once again that we are the most qualified of democrats, better able [than others] to present a complex and sophisticated discourse. If we fail to present a democratic model [of discourse], we will surely fail to complete our [national] enterprise of liberation."[14]

 

[1] Al-Ayyam (PA), October 22, 2019.

[2] Al-Quds (Jerusalem), October 21, 2019.

[3] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), October 23, 2019.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 25, 2019.

[5] Maannews.net, October 22, 2019.

[6] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), October 23, 2019.

[7] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), October 22, 2019.

[8] Wafa.ps, July 18, 2019.

[9] Palestinian attorney Ibrahim Sha'ban, for example, wrote in the Al-Quds daily that these measures contravened the PA Basic Law and undermined the independence of the judiciary. Al-Quds (Jerusalem), August 16, 2019. 

[10] For more on the dissolution of the PLC, see the introduction to MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1433, Fatah-Hamas Schism Widens Further Following Ruling By Palestinian Authority Constitutional Court – Established By Palestinian Authority President 'Abbas – To Disband Palestinian Legislative Council, January 22, 2019. For PA criticism of the concentration of powers in the hands of 'Abbas, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5419, Opposition To 'Abbas Emerging Within Palestinian Authority: Senior Fatah Members Criticize Government For Anti-Democratic Methods, Corruption, August 23, 2013.

[11] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 15, 2017.

[12] Al-Ayyam (PA), October 23, 2019.

[13] The reference is apparently to Iran and Qatar, which supports Hamas and/or to the UAE, which supports the Dahlan camp.

[14] Al-Ayyam (PA), October 24, 2019.