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."
The watchdog conceded it couldn't identify clear "instructions from PA leaders to the security services" but noted that the "utter failure of the PA leadership to address the prevailing culture of impunity" seemed to reflect official policy.
Given the recent revelations from Ma'an, we can now be more definitive. It is clear that Mahmoud Abbas's government is pursuing a policy of quashing critical media coverage and stifling free speech on the Internet.
It appears that the PA has not only quashed critical voices through official channels, but at times has also resorted to using extrajudicial means. On Jan. 28, hackers took down InLightPress, a website that alleged that Abbas had ordered his security forces to tap his political opponents' phones. When InLightPress returned online, its editors claimed the cyber attack "came from the Palestinian Authority with the approval of President Abbas." The site further alleged that Abbas had created a "crisis cell" headed by Sabri Saidam, former head of the PA's ministry of telecommunications and information technology, to coordinate the attack.
A week later, on Feb. 3, InLightPress was hacked again. When it returned, its editors stated , "[W]e now know who [the hackers] are, and why they did it, and they know that we will not stop." In defiance, the site continued to publish scathing criticism of Abbas. In response, the Palestinian leadership blocked access to InLightPress in the territories. Days later, the Gaza-based website Amad, which also is critical of Abbas, reported that Palestinian users could not access its website because the Palestinian government had blocked it.
In an apparent confirmation of this campaign, an official from the Telecommunications and Information Technology Ministry was quoted by InLightPress as saying that the site was spreading "sedition and lies to break up the structure of Palestinian society." As a result, he claimed, the PA had the "right to defend... against this malicious and suspicious campaign."
Having a right is not the same as being in the right. The West Bank has now erupted in scandal. On April 25, the Palestinian Telecommunications Company (Paltel) issued a statement admitting it had "no choice except to abide by" orders from Palestinian officials to block websites. On April 26, Palestinian Minister of Communication and Information Technology Mashour Abu Daka resigned, citing "personal reasons" for his departure. And on Saturday, long-time Abbas loyalist Hanan Ashrawi came out and publicly condemned the actions of her government.
But as InLightPress and Ma'an have both noted, Palestinians have no recourse here. There appears to be no law criminalizing what the PA has done. And Abbas conveniently deflects all criticism toward the Israelis, claiming that their presence makes him unable to introduce democratic reforms. As a result, the political environment in the West Bank looks increasingly like the Gaza Strip, where the Iran-backed terrorist group Hamas rules with an iron fist.
Obama's new executive order, which is designed to prevent human rights violations involving technology, may provide Palestinians with their best recourse for combating Abbas's attempts to dominate the political space in the West Bank. But the president has so far failed to live up to his lofty rhetoric. Just days after the scandal erupted, the president signed a waiver releasing $192 million in aid for the Palestinians that had been frozen by Congress on the grounds that it was "important for the security interests of the United States."
The president, however, issued the waver without first demanding that Abbas take measures to guarantee free speech in the West Bank. This was a lost opportunity. Only direct intervention by the United States will ensure greater freedom of expression for Palestinians engaged in this important struggle.