“The majority of causes of repression and intimidation, from both the PA and Hamas, has been in regard to speaking out in favor or against one of these two bodies. If an election is to really take place, we see a free and fair press as being an essential part of that process.”
PALESTINE — Five months after Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas issued the Cybercrime Law by Presidential Decree, the Palestinian Centre for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) has launched an online campaign against the legislation, in a bid to raise awareness and mobilize against the injustices enshrined in the law. The Cybercrime Law, which was published without the consultation of civil-society organizations, is viewed by journalists and organizations as targeting freedom of expression, notably when these views oppose the PA’s political agenda.
Article 20(1) of the law offers a vivid example of the authoritarian repression, holding criminally accountable “anyone who manages a website or an information technology platform that aims to publish news that would endanger the integrity of the Palestinian state, the public order or the internal and external security of the state.”
According to MADA’s press release, the campaign seeks the amendment of the law “in line with the Palestinian Basic Law, the international conventions which Palestine acceded to without reservation and the international standards that guarantee the freedom of opinion and expression.”
Since the law came into effect, Palestinian media outlets and journalists holding a different political opinion from that of Mahmoud Abbas have been targeted by the PA with accusations of incitement. In the immediate aftermath of the law’s publication, 29 Palestinian news websites affiliated with Hamas or Mohammad Dahlan — a Fatah official expelled by Abbas upon corruption allegations in 2011 — were blocked. Jihad Barakat, a journalist who photographed Israeli soldiers stopping PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s motorcade, was arrested by PA security forces. In June alone, MADA reported that out of 51 press freedom violations, 34 were committed by the PA.
The law did not come into effect in isolation. In March 2017, Palestinian activist and thinker Basel al-Araj was assassinated in a joint Israeli-Palestinian Authority security coordination operation that drew protests against the PA. Palestinian journalists were assaulted by the PA’s security forces and their equipment damaged in order to prevent coverage of the event, which was characterized by excessive force much like that used by Israel against Palestinians.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) March 12, 2017
In August, four journalists were arrested on the pretext of “leaking sensitive information to hostile parties.” The arrests happened when attention was focused on the protests at Al-Aqsa last summer, when increased Israeli surveillance, including the use of metal detectors at the compound, prompted Abbas to announce the suspension of security coordination with Israel – something that Abbas had threatened to do on several occasions. The focus on the announcement allowed the PA to persecute Palestinian journalists unhindered.
Campaigning against the Cybercrime Law
Speaking with Dr. Mousa Rimawi, MADA’s director general, it became clear that PA repression, particularly since the passing of the Cybercrime legislation, has increased obstruction of freedom of expression, as well as hindered the quest for justice.
Last February, MADA demanded a commission of inquiry into the torture of Palestinian journalist Sami Al-Sa’ee at the hands of the PA security services. Al-Sa’ee was accused of “inciting sectarian strife” and later of recruiting for Hamas. Rimawi stated: “The commission of inquiry did not happen – our demand was refused. After the Cybercrime law came into effect, things became worse.”
Since the dissolution of the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006, the power of legislation rests with Mahmoud Abbas.
Rimawi continued, “The draft law was not discussed with civil society organizations, although it is closely related to human rights, especially freedom of expression and opinion, as well as the right to privacy.”
Article 61 of the decree states:
All the competent authorities shall implement the provisions of this Presidential Decree, each according to their competence, and it shall be effective from the date that it is published in the official gazette.”
This meant that there was no time for individuals and organizations to review the law after publication.
Rimawi explained that a meeting was held between MADA and the PLO Information Department, with the presence of several civil society organizations, during which one of the recommendations was the formation of a committee to amend articles in the law that affect freedom of expression and privacy.
Based on our absolute belief in the principles of human rights in full and without fragmentation, and after reviewing the provisions of all articles and clauses of the presidential decree, we emphasize that some of the clauses are contradictory to the most important principles of human rights.
The vague terms impose unjustified and dangerous restrictions on freedom of opinion and expressions. Another concern is the absence of the principle of proportionality between the prescribed crimes and the imposed penalties. The violation of the principle of the right to privacy guaranteed by Palestinian Basic Law Article No. 32 is another concern.”
MADA’s recently launched campaign against the Cybercrime Law is aimed at all sectors of Palestinian society. Rimawi explained:
We are trying to reach the wider public through social media, as well as radio and TV spots, because the law affects freedom of expression in general, not only journalists. The public needs to be made aware of this danger, especially since it has been in force since its publication in the official newspaper in June.”
The PA, Rimawi continues, agreed to discuss amendments only after pressure from Palestinian civil society and international organizations, as well as a letter from UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye to President Abbas regarding the legislation.
The letter referred to by Rimawi is a detailed critique of Abbas’s attempt to criminalize freedom of expression in violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which stipulates the provision by law of the right of freedom of expression. It also expresses concern that the law will encourage a wider interpretation of criminalized behavior, “under the charge of offending general values,” and calls for review and revision of the law in accordance with international human rights law.
Reconciliation and repression in the context of colonial occupation
Palestinian journalists face repression by Israel and the PA, the latter often through tactics that mirror those of the colonial power — including detention, torture and surveillance.
Addameer is a Palestinian NGO supporting Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli and Palestinian jails. Dawoud Yusef, Addameer’s Advocacy and Lobbying Coordinator, expounded upon this repression in comments to MintPress News. He described PA violations within the context of the Cybercrime Law as the leadership “becoming something that was directly in cooperation with the Israeli authorities in regard to matters of free speech.”
Addameer’s main focus, he explained, is the military occupation; “but we want to ensure that our own representatives do not become an occupation in Palestinian dress.”
Yousef explained the tactics employed by Israel and the PA in their endeavors to obliterate freedom of expression:
The persecution of journalists is undertaken by the Israelis and the PA in different ways. The Israelis do arrest journalists directly, but more often focus on the shutting down of stations and news sources. They are less reactive and able to avoid antagonizing individuals.
The PA, on the other hand, goes after specific journalists and commentators.Torture is rare due to the visibility around that but they are often charged on bogus and strange counts. One was charged with ‘panhandling.”
Last month, Israel closed the media offices of Palestinian outlets Quds TV, Al-Aqsa, Palestine Today, Palmedia and Transmedia — which also provide news services to international outlets — thus depriving Palestine of a much-needed platform. According to the latest statistics by the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, 28 Palestinian journalists are currently imprisoned in Israeli jails.
Rimawi asserted that in light of the escalating violations due to the military occupation and Palestinian political divisions, protection for Palestinian journalists is an ongoing process. He indicated that MADA was embarking upon several avenues to achieve measures of safety — including exposing violations, establishing legal units to defend journalists and provide free consultancy services, providing legal training workshops, and arranging meetings with decision-makers.
Earlier this month, as reported by the Electronic Intifada, Palestinian photojournalist Mohammad Alhaj fled Palestine to Jordan after being contacted in August by PA intelligence services to become an informant and spy on fellow journalists. His refusal to collaborate resulted in his being summoned by the PA intelligence over a Facebook post and threatened with prosecution under the Cybercrime law. When called again, Alhaj made the decision to flee.
This latest violation happened at a time when Palestinian factions have signed a reconciliation agreement seeking to end the divisions and alleviate Gaza’s humanitarian crisis. So far, it remains unclear what impact the reconciliation agreement will have upon the freedom-of-expression rights of Palestinians. The reconciliation agreement occurred after months of the PA bringing Gaza to the brink politically, socially and economically.
Yousef is wary about the implications of the reconciliation agreement and the possibilities of press freedom. He cautioned:
The sheer majority of causes of repression and intimidation, from both the PA and Hamas, has been in regard to speaking out in favor or against one of these two bodies. If an election is to really take place, we see a free and fair press as being an essential part of that.”
Since the PA has been actively seeking to eliminate voices that criticize Mahmoud Abbas and his politics, the Cybercrime law and its implications can go both ways — depending upon the politics of the unity government and Hamas’s disposition or rejection of any demands by Israel, Abbas, or the international community.
For the time being, Rimawi predicts a decrease in violations:
I think the violations will decrease as we noted last month. Our monthly report, which has just been published, shows this decrease. However the scenario is dependent on whether the reconciliation will last. We hope it will, but we are not sure.”
Top photo | Palestinian journalists take part in a protest in front of the Reuters office, Gaza City, Gaza, Apr. 22, 2008.
Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger. She writes about the struggle for memory in Palestine and Chile, historical legitimacy, the ramifications of settler-colonialism, the correlation between humanitarian aid and human rights abuses, the United Nations as an imperialist organisation, indigenous resistance, la nueva cancion Chilena and Latin American revolutionary philosophy with a particular focus on Fidel Castro, Jose Marti and Jose Carlos Mariategui. Her articles, book reviews, interviews and blogs have been published in Middle East Monitor, Upside Down World, Truthout, Irish Left Review, Gramsci Oggi, Cubarte, Rabble.ca, Toward Freedom, History Today, Chileno and other outlets, including academic publications and translations into several languages.