Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas under fire for web censorship

UPDATE 27 April: Communications Minister Mashhour Abu Daka resigned yesterday, citing personal reasons. Abu Daka reportedly accused al-Mughni of “gagging free expression” shortly before his resignation.

The Palestinian Authority has reportedly enforced a block on accessing sites critical of President Mahmoud Abbas by pressuring Internet Service Providers (ISPs) since February.

Local news agency Ma’an made the discovery in cooperation with Open Observatory of Network Interference and after a member of Prime Minister Salam Fayyed’s cabinet agreed to speak publicly about the story. The blocking of sites including AmadFatah VoiceFiras Press represents a crackdown on those which tend to cover internal Fatah politics and are thus critical of the President, who is already being accused of a power grab due to his ever-increasing number of roles within the Authority. Due to some of the sites being loyal to former Fatah official Muhammed Dahlan, Ma’an describes how following a political spat between Dahlan and Abbas, resulting in a raid on Dahlan’s house, “the Palestinian Authority was complaining about its inability to shut down alleged Dahlan media based abroad” from June 2011.  Four of these sites are currently blocked, meaning that the PA have no qualms about censoring sites based outside of their jurisdiction if it suits their political purpose.

According to Ma’an, the order to block the sites was hand-delivered by the Palestinian Attorney General Ahmad al-Mughni to the CEO of the Palestinian Telecommunications Company (or PalTel) and other smaller ISPs based in the West Bank. Ma’an also state that al-Mughni, whose name appears to be increasingly connected to cases of crackdowns on the press, including the arrest without charge of several journalists in recent weeks, has dismissed these claims and refused to respond to questions on the topic.

The Committee to Protect Journalists’ Advocacy Coordinator Danny O’Brien stated in response that “by blocking these websites, the Palestinian Authority is creating a dangerous new infrastructure for the suppression of speech in its own country.” With the PA already entering a phase of arresting journalists whose work or opinions they dislike, “a dangerous new infrastructure” which censors the internet appears to be precisely the right description.

Padraig Reidy of Index on Censorship told Ma’an: “The blocking of these sites seems to be blatantly political. This kind of action is not the kind that any genuine democratic government should be involved in, and it reflects extremely poorly on the Palestinian Authority.”

In February, Abbass’ own Communications Advisor as well as PalTel representatives spoke out against Denial of Service attacks that were frequently disabling certain news sites or even making internet access an impossibility in the West Bank. PalTel Chief Executive Ammar al-Ikir went as far as to state that “there is an electronic war against Palestine, which began after Palestine became a member of UNESCO.”

Yet the same representatives who spoke out against an external attack on internet access and net freedom are those who are complicit in blocking sites for political gain from within. The only positive element of the situation is the hope that the discovery of Abbas’ and the PA’s efforts to clamp down on dissent is likely to be entirely counterproductive in its effects.