According to Al-Jazeera News the Palestinian Internet Service Provider (ISP) received orders to block 11 news websites, following a directive by the PA’s public prosecutor Ahmed Barak. Interestingly, all 11 sites are reportedly based outside of the West Bank and have ties to either the Hamas movement or Mohammed Dahlan. Thus, the news casts serious doubt on the PA’s commitment to the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of expression and shines a light on the harsh conditions journalists in Palestine face.
Among the sites banned last week are Shebab News Agency and Palestine newspaper, both closely affiliated with Hamas, as well as Amad and Voice of Fatah, associated with Mohammed Dahlan, a former member of Fatah’s Central Committee, expelled from the movement in 2011, arguably for his rivalry with PA President and Fatah Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and officially for charges of corruption. Late last year, Dahlan was stripped of his parliamentary immunity by the President and, shortly after, sentenced to three years in prison and fined 16 million US-Dollars on charges of embezzlement. Yet, Dahlan continues to exert influence in the Palestinian political scene from his exile in the Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
Coincidently, Voice of Fatah had been banned previously. In 2012, it was reported that the PA had shut down eight websites, some of which were also close to Dahlan — including Voice of Fatah. The current crackdown comes amid the implementation of a series of policies by the Fatah-run PA that is bound to increase the pressure on Hamas-governed Gaza Strip. These include, among other things, a considerable cut in salaries to public servants in the Strip that was made public last April and the exasperation of the ongoing electricity crisis in Gaza. This comes at the heels of reported rapprochement between Hamas and Dahlan that may have exasperated the already tense relationship between the duo on one side and the PA leadership.
Several Palestinian factions released statements of condemnation; with the Palestinian Journalists Union saying the shutdown was “distorting the image of media freedoms in Palestine”. Hamas spokesperson Fazwi Barhoum denounced the PA’s targeting of freedom of opinion and expression, “Which reflects the dictatorial approach of Abbas and his authority toward our people.” The PA defended the decision, arguing the websites had violated rules of publication, which forbid defamation and fake news.
While the PA currently faces heavy criticism for what appears to be a politically motivated move to silence unwelcome media, Gaza authorities have also had their share of controversial policies. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that Hamas had shut down the Saudi-funded broadcaster Al-Arabia and Maan News Agency in 2013 and attacked several international outlets in 2011. Most recently, Maan reported that a journalist for the PA’s official TV channel Palestine TV, Fouad Jaradeh, had been detained in the Gaza Strip for unspecified reasons and 54-year-old writer Abdullah Abu Sharikh remains imprisoned since January for remarks he made on Facebook.
Human Rights Watch argued in a 2016-report that the “Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are arresting, abusing, and criminally charging journalists and activists who express peaceful criticism of the authorities”. Currently, Palestine is ranked 135 out of 180 on Reporters without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, stating, “Interrogations and detention without any charge are part of the price that journalists pay for the political rivalry between Fatah and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.” However, journalists in the Occupied Territories are under threat from both sides. “The Israel Defense Force”, Reporters without Borders states, “often violates the rights of Palestinian journalists and journalists from other nations.”, pointing to the fact that Israel’s system of administrative detention allows the authorities to hold Palestinian journalists without charge or trial indefinitely.
While the latest incident highlights a controversial PA-policy, it should be considered within the larger context of freedom of expression in the Occupied Territories. Independent observers are adamant to stress that media freedoms need defending and they unambiguously call on all factions, inside and outside of Palestine, to rally behind independent and strong media.