Palestinian Minister of Telecommunications Mashhour Abu Dakka did well to resign from his post following the recent controversy over Internet censorship. The decision to block certain websites fell under the purview of his ministry. However, in resigning, he also accused Attorney General Ahmad Mughani of being behind this attack on freedom of expression.
Yes, the resignation came late, but it did not constitute mere “ministerial one-upmanship.” As they say, “better late than never.” The questions now are: What is the stance of the government, its head and the rest of the ministers on this issue? Why do they allow these violations of rights and public freedoms, contenting themselves with repressing their anger and just hinting that they stand against such measures? Why doesn’t the council of ministers threaten to resign immediately if these violations continue?
On numerous occasions we saw the government stand idly by, incapable of doing anything about the arrests-pending-investigation of journalists, bloggers or others who have not even been charged. Their cases do not require that they be jailed before the claims against them are resolved. This proves the arbitrariness of the broad powers held and used by the Attorney General.
The government should not continue to rule for another minute if it is incapable of controlling institutions and bodies that are supposed to fall within its legal authority. In the developed world and in some developing countries, governments resign for lesser reasons. There is nothing more precious than a human being, and preserving human lives, rights, freedoms and properties is the basis for any just system.
Does this mean that journalists, websites, the media and others have the right to write and publish whatever they please without boundaries? Are they allowed to slander, defame, incite and accuse without presenting evidence to support their claims? Of course not.
Dealing with journalists who break the law cannot be achieved through imprisonment and detention during a pending investigation or by shutting down websites. It should be done through competent courts. There is no need to resort to false accusations or political interference for personal reasons.
The websites were shut down for political reasons, due to their affiliation with some former Fatah leader who had a falling out with the president. In an earlier incident, the television series Watan Ala Watar (A Country on Edge) was pulled off the air as a result of political pressure, an incident whose repercussions remained unchanged even after the courts lately decided in favor of airing it; its producers were dealt a severe blow, and Palestine TV continues to not air it. Of course, this does not mean that I or many other people do not have reservations about the series — either artistically or the with the subject matter — and the manner with which it dealt with many pertinent issues.
Every time we feel proud of the margin of freedom we possess, oppressive measures taken in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip bring us back to reality. Freedom is always a victim when each side incites, mobilizes and polarizes people against each other.
This behavior worsens then subsides, with both sides persecuting members and sympathizers of the other side. They do this by preventing the opposition from receiving passports, or barring them from travelling. The Gaza government summons large numbers of Fatah supporters into the Gaza Strip — in a shameful echo of the Israeli occupation’s practices — making them wait for hours until day’s end, only to be asked to return at a later date without ever questioning or charging them.
There are also widespread arrests by both sides, including the thousands of people detained in the West Bank following the split with Gaza, and the intensive, all-inclusive arrests in the Gaza Strip. Both sides resort to torture, with many detainees ending up in hospitals in critical condition.
Finally, certain people are politically dismissed from their jobs or are barred from particular positions on the basis of “security” reasons. Employment is limited to those who have no relationships with rival factions, when the only criteria for employment should be the lack of legal convictions for offences involving honor, honesty and national belonging.
We cannot conclude our review of this dark chapter without alluding to the control or closure of institutions. Some are social institutions that offer services to thousands of aid-deprived families only because the institutions in questions are controlled or affiliated with another faction.
Turning a blind eye to the reciprocal campaigns that targeted supporters and leaders of both Fatah and Hamas at the beginning of their dispute led to the violations against the freedom of demonstration and the freedom of expression. Lines have been drawn, and no one is permitted to cross without punishment. These lines change depending on the period; they are hard to define, but their perpetuity has led self-censorship to incessantly grow among writers, politicians and anyone working in public affairs.
Anyone who follows the discussion dealing with criticism and censorship saw how a certain female journalist was arrested for severely criticizing the president, or how another journalist — among many others — was detained for talking about the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, the Authority has threatened since 2009 to dissolve itself and hand over the reins to the Israeli occupation forces, because it has become an Authority without any authority.
There was once a conference against the resumption of direct negotiations. Four members of the Executive Committee and dozens of national personalities participated, as well as leaders representing a number of factions within the framework of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The conference was met with opposition by the Palestinian Authority, including more than 400 security personnel who were sent early, carrying banners and chanting slogans and preventing the start of the conference.
Now, there is a political need for demonstrations against negotiations. Thus, several demonstrations were permitted in front of the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters. Public freedoms and rights should not be the subjects of political tugs-of-war or polarization. They are not a demand only when unity is present, to be forbidden when divisions take place; they are essential requirements in all circumstances because free men whose rights and dignities are preserved are the ones capable of withstanding, resisting and vanquishing the occupation. Thus, these rights are necessary to gain freedom and restore independence.
Palestinians suffer enough oppression, detention and suppression of freedom under the occupation. This includes the prevention of travel between the West Bank and Gaza, the Bank, Jerusalem and inside the West Bank itself.
It is politically and morally reprehensible that a detainee released from Israeli jails be re-arrested by Palestinian security forces, or that the same person be arrested by the occupation forces one day and by Palestinian security the next.
Finally, it is dangerous and unacceptable to detain critics or censor media on the basis of partisan, political or personal interests. This is not because they are impractical — for websites can be restored without government approval and people can subscribe to Israeli Internet-service providers — but because such actions affect people as a whole, hindering achievement and progress.
When the US administration’s spokeswoman condemns these violations, these condemnations should not be rejected out of fear of being accused of furthering the interests of foreign parties. Local condemnation precedes American objection, and will remain long after it stops. It will never cease until a unified political system is established in the West Bank and Gaza within the framework of the Palestine Liberation Organization. This unity should include all factions: a system that respects the Palestinian individual and unconditionally protects his rights and freedoms.
The explosive power of the Internet, satellite channels and other means of communication have broken down the walls of censorship, and whoever exercises censorship or commits related violations will ultimately lose. All those who have arrested people and censored their media must ask themselves about the damages that these violations have inflicted upon the Authority. Can it be compared to the damages inflicted upon it by the publication of viewpoints or investigative reports that criticize it?
Those responsible for the censorship and arrests must ask if their actions were worth it, even if some of the critics crossed the lines set out by Voltaire’s famous words: “Your freedom ends where the my nose begins.”