Last weekend, Palestinian Authority Attorney General Ahmad al-Mughni publicly defended the blocking of several websites critical of the PA government and especially President Mahmoud Abbas. It was the first effort by any official to explain or defend these extraordinary actions, which have garnered widespread condemnation in Palestinian society.
Al-Mughni's statement was technical, legalistic, convoluted and entirely unconvincing. Indeed, if anything, it reaffirmed nearly universal suspicions that the websites were, in fact, blocked for political rather than bona fide legal reasons. Many Palestinians have expressed alarm, and privately speak of the potential for the development of an authoritarian “police state” in which opinion will be far more tightly controlled that it has been in the past.
Since the split between Gaza and the West Bank in 2007, there has always been an obvious contrast between the creeping totalitarianism imposed by Hamas and the relative liberalism of the PA. Even with these new measures that smack of authoritarianism, there is no comparison with the level of repression in Gaza. But the trend is nonetheless deeply troubling.
It's not just the general public or international opinion that is troubled by these steps. Sabri Saidam, the Advisor on Internet Affairs to Abbas, bemoaned the lack of clear legislation protecting Internet freedom and said these steps give the impression that the PA is trying to "muzzle people's mouths and block freedom of opinion."
These moves clearly fly directly in the face of the ethos and vision of the institution-building program headed by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Fayyad, who is presently in an exceptionally complex political situation, has understandably chosen not to get directly involved in this controversy.
However, his Third Way Party colleague and senior PLO official Hanan Ashrawi said the government had no legal authority to engage in such censorship and that "Palestine should not promote censorship, whether on the Internet or in other forms of communication." "Unfortunately, these recent acts undermine our efforts to create a Palestinian democratic pluralistic and tolerant society based on the rule of law,” Ashrawi said, pointedly referring to the essential thrust of the institution-building program.
Information about these disturbing developments has been largely gathered through intrepid reporting by George Hale of the Palestinian Ma'an News Agency. But interestingly, much more of his work has appeared in English, and some versions have been either truncated, attenuated or only briefly posted on the Ma'an Arabic language site.
Many of the now-censored websites are reportedly loyal to Muhammad Dahlan, the former Fatah leader in Gaza whose feud with Abbas and many others has been simmering for months. He currently faces extensive corruption charges, and is widely blamed by West Bank Fatah officials for having overseen the loss of Gaza to Hamas.
Complicating matters, the now-former Communications Minister Mashour Abu Daka implied that he resigned over the issue, but other factors may have actually triggered his departure. Suffice it to say, the scandal has provided tremendous grist for the Palestinian political mill especially since, as Internet rights advocate Jillian York notes, heretofore the PA “had done a relatively good job at keeping the Internet open until now."
The move also comes at an awkward time. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recently moved to override congressional obstacles and release $147 million in 2011 fiscal assistance to the Palestinian people. This aid is badly needed in the midst of a financial crisis, and Obama is right that aid to the PA is clearly in American national interest. But such heavy-handed censorship only serve to strengthen arguments against the release and continuation of such aid.
Saidam, Ashrawi and the many other Palestinian officials and public members who have expressed alarm are fully justified. Palestinians can hardly aspire to trade the restrictions of the Israeli occupation for a state-in-the-making in which the rule of law and freedom of expression are flouted for political reasons. Dahlan may still have support of some of his former cadres in Gaza, but otherwise he is widely unpopular. But even if he were a real threat to the current leadership, that would be no excuse for shutting down websites.
The PA must continue to help Palestinians build a society—and eventually, an independent state—based on universal values including freedom of speech, political rights and rule of law. Such arbitrary government action is the antithesis of such values. There must be a Palestinian state to live alongside Israel in peace, security and dignity. But that state must also embody the values of pluralism, tolerance, good governance and the individual rights of each and every citizen regardless of their opinion or affiliation.
The introduction of political censorship by the PA cannot be allowed to take root. These decisions must be reversed, and immediately, in the Palestinian national interest, and for the PA’s own good.