Sat, Aug 12, 2017 - Page 6 News List

Palestinian leader curbs social media expression

SENTENCES:The new decree stipulates prison terms ranging from one year to life for use of digital means to endanger the safety of the state or upset the public order

AP, RAMALLAH, West Bank

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has clamped down on social media and news Web sites — the main outlets for debate and dissent in the West Bank — with a vaguely worded decree that critics say allows his government to jail anyone on charges of harming “national unity” or the “social fabric.”

Rights advocates said the edict, issued last month without prior public debate, is perhaps the most significant step yet by Abbas’ government to restrict freedom of expression in the autonomous Palestinian enclaves of the West Bank.

A Palestinian prosecutor denied that the decree is being used to stifle dissent and said that a new law on electronic crimes was needed to close legal loopholes that in the past allowed offenders, such as hackers, to go unpunished.

However, the government has blocked 30 Web sites in the past month, according to the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA).

Most of the sites were affiliated with Abbas’ two main rivals — a former aide-turned-foe, Mohammed Dahlan, and the Islamic militant group Hamas, MADA said.

A few of the blocked sites had supported the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

Five journalists working for news outlets linked to Hamas were detained this week and charged with breaching the new law, according the lawyer of one of those arrested and an official in the association of Palestinian journalists.

Separately, four other journalists were called for questioning about social media posts critical of government policy.

One of those summoned, photojournalist Fadi Arouri, who works for China’s Xinhua news agency, said he was shown his Facebook posts and was told that the authorities are concerned “these expressions could lead to disorder in the society.”

Ammar Dweik, head of the government-appointed Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights, said the new law is “one of the worst” since the Palestinian autonomy government was established in 1994.

It’s “a big setback to the freedoms in the West Bank,” he said, citing the vague definition of the purported crimes, the wide authority given to the security forces, the large-scale blocking of news Web sites and the harsh punishments.

Rights groups have repeatedly accused Abbas and former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat of restricting freedoms and engaging in human rights violations, such as arbitrary arrests of political opponents, mistreatment in detention and cracking down on peaceful protests.

The new decree stipulates prison terms ranging from one year to life for those who use digital means for a range of all-encompassing offenses.

The list includes endangering the safety of the state or the public order as well as harming national unity or social peace.

Abbas, 82, issued the decree at a time when he is facing new domestic challenges to his rule.

Dahlan and Hamas have overcome their old rivalry to team up against Abbas with an emerging power-sharing deal in Gaza, the territory Abbas’ Fatah movement lost to Hamas in 2007.

Polls routinely show that two-thirds of Palestinians want Abbas to resign. He was elected to five years in 2005, but stayed on, arguing that political disagreement with Hamas prevented new elections.

With parliament paralyzed as a result of the political split, Abbas has ruled by decree.

Abbas also failed to deliver on his central promise of setting up a Palestinian state in talks with Israel.

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