The Palestinian Authority's (PA) Attorney General issued a Directive for the dozen Palestinian ISPs operating in the West Bank to block 11 websites affiliated with political rivals and critics of President Mahmoud Abbas.
Most of the websites are affiliated with the opposition Islamist party and militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza strip. One website is linked to Abbas rival and former Fatah member Mohammad Al-Dahlan, who was expelled from Fatah in 2011.
The sites reportedly are being blocked only in the West Bank, due to “rules of publication”, which ban the publication of fake news and/or defamation. It remains unclear, which “rules” the PA has used to ban the websites, but the 1995 Press and Publication Law includes several vague and broad restrictions on freedom of expression. For example, publications are not allowed to “contradict the principles of …national responsibility” or publish material that is “inconsistent with morals” or which may “shake belief in the national currency.”
The order was issued on 12 June. Palestinians living in the West Bank say they have been unable to access the websites since the same date.
The websites include Amad.ps, Shehab News Agency associated with Hamas, and “Voice of Fatah” known to be close to Al-Dahlan. Hassan Asfour the chief editor of Amad expressed his opposition to the censorship in an opinion piece entitled “From Amad News to the Attorney General of the PA in Ramallah… Censorship will not conceal your scandals”:
والأخير له موقفه من الحريات والديمقراطية وممارسة الحقوق كافة في إطار الحياة وما تقتضيه، عبّر عنها مراراً وتكراراً للإعلام والوفود، حتى اعتقد السامعون أنه الحارس الأمين لوعاء الحريات وممارستها بأمن وأمان، ولكن بحجب (أمد للإعلام) تسقط التصريحات ويصدق الواقع.
Abbas has his position on freedoms, democracy and the exercise of all rights within life's framework and its requirements, which he repeatedly expressed to media and delegations, until listeners believed he was the guardian of freedoms and their safe exercise. But with the blocking of Amad for Media, statements have fallen and reality has spoken.
A number of organizations have denounced the directive. The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) published a statement calling for the PA to withdraw the directive, calling it a violation of freedom of expression and the Palestinian Basic Law. The Arab Center for Social Media Advancement (7amleh) also denounced the blocking order in a statement published on 16 June:
نجد في هذه الخطوة تعارضا كاملا مع المواثيق والمعاهدات الدوليّة ، ومسّا عظيما في الحقوق الرقمية لشرائح من المجتمع الفلسطيني، حيث يحق لكل فلسطيني تمثيله هو وآرائه ضمن العالم الرقمي، كما يحق له أيضا إتاحة المجال أمامه للوصول إلى أيٍّ من المواقع الإلكترونية والمصادر المعلوماتية التي تخص اهتمامته وتضمن حقوقه في التعبير عن أفكاره وطموحاته.
[We] find that this move fully contradicts all international treaties and conventions, and marks a significant violation of the digital rights of segments of Palestinian society. Palestinians have the right to have their opinions represented in the digital world, and to access any electronic websites and information sources that are of interest to them and that guarantee their rights to express their ideas and ambitions.
This is not the first time the PA censors websites. In 2008, there were reports that the PA censored one website in the West Bank called Dounia Al Watan, a Gaza based site that reports on corruption in the PA, while in 2012 they asked ISPs to block eight websites including Amad.ps, which is also one of the websites blocked this past week.