Sunday, May 06, 2012

Mahmoud Abbas Issues Decree to Lift Ban on Critical Websites

Challah Hu Akbar

Last Monday, Ma’an News Agency reported that “The Palestinian Authority has quietly instructed Internet providers to block access to news websites whose reporting is critical of President Mahmoud Abbas.” This report confirmed what I had been reporting since JanuaryShortly thereafter, PalTel said that it had “no choice” but to follow the censorship orders. Victoria Nuland, spokesperson at the U.S. State Department, said that the United States was “concerned” by the reports.

Last Thursday reports emerged that Mashour Abu Daka, Palestinian Authority’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology, was resigning. Abu Daka had helped Ma’an with their report as he said that the Palestinian Authority Attorney General was “responsible” for the censorship and that he had made up his own laws. Abu Daka has since made a number of harsher comments towards the Attorney General. In addition, he has revealed that the PA cabinet was opposed to the censorship, but could do practically nothing to stop it.

Last Friday, Dr. Ghassan Al Khatib, the Director of the Information Office at the Palestinian Authority, denied that the Palestinian Authority had any role in the censorship of websites. However, the Palestinian Authority Attorney General later admitted that websites had been censored. The reports of censorship have led to condemnation from a number of Palestinian officials including Sabri Saidam and Hanan Ashrawi.
WAFA, the official news agency of the Palestinian Authority, is now reporting that Mahmoud Abbas has issued a decree calling for the end to the censorship. PalToday is also reporting this as well Ma’an News Agency and The Jerusalem Post. Here are excerpts from Ma’an.
President Mahmoud Abbas issued formal instructions Saturday to reverse an order censoring news websites linked to one of his fiercest critics. "From this point forward, the attorney general and the judiciary are prohibited from shutting down or blocking websites, and they are instructed to lift any existing bans," Abbas wrote in an executive order. "Freedom of expression and opinion are natural rights guaranteed in the (Palestinian) Basic Law," Abbas said, urging journalists to nevertheless maintain their objectivity. 
…The attorney general is to begin distributing clarifications to West Bank Internet service providers within 24 hours, informing them they are no longer required to block any websites, he said Saturday. Abbas briefed him in a meeting shortly before announcing the instructions, he said. 
…The former communications minister, meanwhile, seemed satisfied by the reversal. "This is common sense," Abu Daka said shortly after Abbas' announcement. "I'm sure that once he had the facts, he took the decision. This gave us a bad name internationally and opened up the Palestinian Authority to a lot of criticism. It was legitimate criticism, by the way." 
Abu Daka says he still does not know if the president was initially aware of the attorney general's actions. He doubts al-Mughni came up with the idea himself. The former minister says that if Abbas approved the plan, "it was on very bad advice. If he knew about this, he was given bad information and it had negative consequences for us." 
He added: "We can debate, this is a good thing. Who cares if a couple websites want to criticize us? Until two weeks ago, most people hadn't even heard of them."
Abbas's decision came in response to sharp criticism from the US, EU and Western human rights organizations, a Western diplomat and PA officials told The Jerusalem Post. 
They said that US and EU diplomats and government officials had contacted Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to voice their deep concern over the clampdown on freedom of expression in PA-controlled territories.

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