Palestinians up in arms over PA and Facebook censorship

Palestinian Authority security forces in Ramallah were behind Magistrate Court's decision to block websites and social media pages.

al-monitor Employees process data on their laptops, Gaza City, Jan. 15, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Salem.

Nov 4, 2019

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Magistrate Court in Ramallah on Oct. 24 reaffirmed its Oct. 17 decision to block 59 websites and social media pages in the West Bank and Gaza based on Article 39 of a 2018 cybercrime law. According to the statute, authorities can seek a court's permission to request that internet service providers block websites that allegedly threaten national security. UltraPalestine, one of the sites blocked as per the decision, had filed an appeal through a lawyer from the Independent Commission for Human Rights, arguing that the decision violates the Basic Law guaranteeing freedom of expression and the media.

The court said that its original decision had been made at the request of Attorney General Akram al-Khatib, who claimed that the sites undermine Palestinian Authority (PA) symbols and in doing so threaten the peace and national security. The court said its decision, made without a trial, will remain in force while the constitutionality of Article 39 of the cybercrime law is assessed.

The Magistrate Court had held a hearing on Oct. 23 to consider the request to revoke the decision, at which time the defense counsel questioned the constitutionality of Article 39, which the cybercrime law holds cannot be appealed. The judge announced the next day that he would refer the article to the Constitutional Court and in the meantime would allow the 59 sites to continue to be blocked.

Most of the websites and social media pages are Palestinian and Arab news sites with Palestinian content, some of it affiliated with Hamas and with Mohammad Dahlan, the dismissed senior Fatah leader and archrival and critic of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The court’s decision sparked a wave of harsh criticism from journalists and international organizations defending media platforms, which considered the decision a blow to the principle of freedom of the press. 

“The Public Prosecution said that our website was blocked because of material and content undermining PA symbols, all of which are opinion pieces by well-known writers,” UltraPalestine editor and spokesman Ahmad Youssef told Al-Monitor. “These articles criticized the PA’s and the security services’ policies. This is a clear violation of freedom of expression and publication.”

 Meanwhile, on Oct. 22, the PA government had found itself in the awkward position of issuing a statement requesting that the court rescind its original decision, while the Public Prosecution, which asked for the blocks, said that it had acted at the request of the PA's own security services. The government cited respect for international conventions on the protection of freedoms as well as Palestinian law in making its request.

Majid al-Arouri, a journalist who specializes in human rights and judicial issues, told Al-Monitor that the government statement on a reversal negated any argument that the websites were undermining public safety. Arouri said this should be reason enough to prompt the court to act. 

The Magistrate Court’s decision returned the cybercrime law to the forefront along with demands to amend it. When passed last year, the statute was roundly lambasted by media and human rights activists for articles that explicitly violate the Basic Law and international laws adopted by the PA.

The court's action coincides with a Facebook campaign launched Oct. 22 by Palestinian journalists and activists to protect Palestinians' presence on Facebook, in particular challenging Facebook's removal of Palestinian pages and postings against the Israeli occupation and on the history of Palestinian resistance, actions the company has apparently taken in collaboration with Israel.

Moussa Rimawi, director-general of the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA), said that the court's decision is a blow to efforts to counter the Facebook campaign.

Rimawi told Al-Monitor that MADA researchers had monitored more than 34 websites that were banned on Facebook, which he said points to the seriousness of the actions against Palestinian content. Rimawi said that MADA had tried to contact the platform about lifting the bans, but has not received an answer.

Journalists of the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate (PSJ) were also up in arms over press statements by Nisrine Zena, head of the Cybercrime Unit of the Public Prosecution, indicating that the unit would contact Facebook to block the pages outlined in the Magistrate Court’s decision. 

Rimawi believes that there is no end in sight to such repressive measures and that members of the media need to close ranks and unify efforts. “We must accelerate the formation of this alliance to confront repressive policies, create a legal environment conducive to media work and promote freedom of expression in Palestine,” Rimawi added. 

He envisions an alliance that includes Palestinian media institutions working on policies to support freedom of expression and to challenge violations of rights, including Israeli actions against Palestinian media freedoms, such as Facebook's censorship.

Arouri concurred with Rimawi on the need to work toward amending laws that stifle expression, especially the cybercrime law. “It is important to unite our positions and remain vigilant to any law that might be passed that would undermine public freedoms and freedom of expression,” Arouri said. “It is important to strengthen the role of the judiciary in defending freedom of expression and media freedoms.”

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