President Barack Obama's administration has loudly touted its efforts to protect peaceful activists across the globe from regimes that would oppress them. On April 26, the White House issued an executive order to stop technology companies from helping Iran and Syria commit human rights abuses. The two countries have become what members of Congress have called "zones of electronic repression," where the regimes use modern technologies to crush those seeking democratic reforms.
But amid all this, Obama is missing an opportunity to promote positive change in a government over which the United States has much more leverage: Mahmoud Abbas's increasingly repressive fiefdom in the West Bank. On the same day as the White House issued its executive order, the Palestinian Ma'an News Agency reported an explosive story detailing how Palestinian officials have "quietly instructed Internet providers to block access to news websites whose reporting is critical of President Mahmoud Abbas."
This wasn't a rogue operation. All signs suggest the order to shut the website came straight from the top. The Ma'an article, citing a Palestinian official, claims that Palestinian Authority Attorney General Ahmad al-Mughni personally delivered the order but that he "was acting on instructions from higher up in the government -- either from the president's office or an intelligence director."
Mughni had already come under fire for other draconian efforts to muzzle free speech. In January 2012, Palestinian security forces arrested Al-Ahram reporter Khaled Amayreh for criticizing Abbas and referring to Hamas strongman Ismail Haniyeh as the "legitimate Palestinian prime minister." They also detained several journalists and bloggers for critical writing. Among them was Jamal Abu Rihan, a Palestinian blogger who ran the Facebook page "The people want an end to corruption."
The arrests go on. According to al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights group, "It is difficult to know exactly how many people have been detained in violation of the right to freedom of expression because victims, in many cases, are charged with or accused of penal offenses to mask the political motivation behind their arrest." In some cases, arrests appear to be roundups of Hamas supporters. In others, they appear to be aimed at non-violent political opponents or critics of the Abbas regime.
The repression also extends beyond Palestinian outlets. In July 2009, the Palestinian Authority banned Al-Jazeera from operating in the West Bank after the news channel reported on allegations that Abbas and former Gaza security chief Mohammad Dahlan were accomplices in the death of Yasser Arafat. In January 2011, following its publication of internal documents related to Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations known as the "Palestine Papers," Palestinian security officers (among others) attempted to storm Al-Jazeera's Ramallah offices.
These and other incidents have had a chilling effect on reporting. As former Palestinian intelligence official Fahmi Shabaneh remarked in 2010, "al-Jazeera and other Arab media outlets... are afraid to publish anything that angers the Palestinian Authority."
Amid such accounts, in April 2011, Human Rights Watch issued a 35-page report titled "No News is Good News: Abuses Against Journalists by Palestinian Security Forces." It revealed that Palestinian journalists in the West Bank "have had their equipment confiscated and been arbitrarily detained, barred from traveling abroad, assaulted, and in one case, tortured, by Palestinian security services."