Press freedom groups blast PA court for banning dozens of news sites
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Press freedom groups blast PA court for banning dozens of news sites

Reporters Without Borders calls decision ‘unacceptable’, saying it appears ‘designed to punish media critical’ of Ramallah; Palestinian Journalists Syndicate files appeal

Adam Rasgon is the Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

A picture taken on October 23, 2019, shows a Palestinian man holding a cell phone displaying the message "this website is not accessible," at an office in the city of Hebron in the West Bank, following a Ramallah court's ruling to block access to dozens of websites. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)
A picture taken on October 23, 2019, shows a Palestinian man holding a cell phone displaying the message "this website is not accessible," at an office in the city of Hebron in the West Bank, following a Ramallah court's ruling to block access to dozens of websites. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

Two prominent press freedom groups on Wednesday condemned a Palestinian Authority court’s recent decision to block dozens of social media pages and news sites.

Reporters Without Borders called the decision “unacceptable,” contending that it appeared “designed to punish media critical” of the PA.

The Ramallah Magistrate’s Court last Thursday ordered that 59 social media pages and news sites be blocked, an official in the PA Attorney General’s Office, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said on Tuesday.

“These sites are not registered with the Information Ministry as required by the law,” the official told The Times of Israel. “They are also publishing materials that threaten national security and public order.”

Many of these social media pages and news sites are highly critical of PA President Mahmoud Abbas and a number are either connected to or sympathetic to his rivals, the Hamas terror group and exiled Fatah member Mohammed Dahlan.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks to Palestinian leaders at the Muqata, the PA headquarters, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on July 25, 2019. (Wafa news agency)

Sabrina Bennoui, the head of Reporters Without Borders’ Middle East desk, said: “Blocking websites is clearly a violation of the right to news and information. In so doing, the Palestinian Authority confirms its refusal to accept media pluralism and its desire to eliminate all opposition by making it invisible to the public.”

Part of the court decision, which was published on several Palestinian news sites, referred to Clause 39 of the PA’s controversial electronic crimes law.

That clause outlines a system by which authorities can seek court permission to block websites that publish what is described as “expressions, numbers, pictures, videos, promotional materials or anything else that threatens national security and public order and morals.”

The International Press Institute also issued a denunciation of the court’s decision.

Daoud Kuttab, the vice chairman of The International Press Institute’s Executive Board, described the court’s order as “undemocratic,” while urging the PA to rescind its electronic crimes law.

The official in the Attorney General’s Office noted that 15 of the social media pages and news sites were not being blocked for the first time.

“Some of the sites were originally blocked two years ago,” he said. “The Attorney General’s Office asked to block those again because each order barring them only lasts six months.”

It was not clear whether authorities had blocked all of the pages and sites yet, nor if they would be able to implement the decision in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Palestinian internet users can get around restrictions on access to websites by using a virtual private network, which makes the user appear to be in a different country.

Palestinian groups and officials have also criticized the court’s decision.

The PA government called on relevant authorities to walk the order back, government spokesman Ibrahim Milhem said in a statement late Monday carried by the official PA news site Wafa.

It also urged the administrators of social media pages and news sites to “follow professional and moral standards in publishing news and media items,” Milhem said.

The Muqata’a in Ramallah, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/PalestinianLiberator/File)

PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said in July that he affirmed to a delegation of Human Rights Watch officials his “government’s commitment to guarantee the right of Palestinian citizens to free speech through constructive criticism.”

The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate called the decision a “massacre of free speech and expression” and said it filed an appeal against it.

The Hamas terror group also criticized the order.

“The new decision only means the Palestinian Authority and the occupation are standing together in waging war against written and photographed Palestinian works that have exposed the occupation’s violations, corruption and crimes,”  said senior Hamas official Husam Badran.

“We call on the PA to stop its war against Palestinian journalism that has resisted the occupation,” he added.

Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee member Wasel Abu Yousef described it as “reprehensible.”

“It is something that police states do,” he said. “It should not happen here because we are not in a police state.”

 

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