In a move that human rights activists say restricts freedom of expression, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has issued a vaguely worded law that clamps down on social media and news websites in the West Bank.
Ynet News reported that the PA has blocked 30 sites in the last month. Most of the blocked sites are reported to be affiliated with Abbas’ rivals: his former aide, Mohammed Dahlan, and Hamas, the terrorist group that controls Gaza. A few of the blocked sites also support ISIS.
A Palestinian prosecutor said the new legislation is needed to fight electronic crimes and prevent hackers from going unpunished. However, Ammar Dweik, head of the government-appointed Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights, told Ynet news that the new law is “one of the worst” to be issued in the PA’s history.
The law provides for prison terms ranging from one year to a life sentence for offenses ranging from endangering public safety to harming “national unity” or “social peace.”
Referring to the vague definition of the crimes, the wide ranging authority given to security forces and the harsh prison terms, Dweik said the law was “a big setback to the freedoms in the West Bank.”
Social media and the internet are a key way for Palestinians living under Abbas (and Hamas) to express themselves and tell the outside world what their governments are doing. For instance, the Jerusalem Institute of Justice, founded by attorney Calev Myers, has been able to publish material issued by Palestine Informer, a Facebook group that seeks to bring accurate, uncensored information about the PA.
Ynet News said that Abbas’ new law has been issued at a time when he faces domestic challenges to his rule. Polls show that two thirds of Palestinians want him to step down.