With the controversy in the U.S. over CISPA in full force, News comes out of the Middle East that the Palestinian Authority is blocking news sites critical of President Mahmoud Abbas and his government.
Sources talking to Maan News blame Attorney-General Ahmad al-Mughni claiming that "he is making up his own laws" to justify the censorship of the critical sites. In fact, Communications Director Mahour Abu Daka (the one who said that about al-Mughni) resigned today and his resignation was accepted by Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and had this to say
Abu Daka added: Blocking websites is against the public interest. I oppose it without exception. We couldn't agree more, and urge the PA to immediately unblock the affected sites and ensure a free and open Internet in Palestine.
Abu Daka was critical of the Authority's "stealth attack" on up to eight News Outlets most of whom are allied to former strongman Muhammed Dhalen. However, it was the quietness of this operation that got to most people.
As many as eight news outlets have been rendered unavailable to many Internet users in the West Bank, after technicians at the Palestinian Telecommunications Company, or PalTel, tweaked an open source software called Squid to return error pages, a detailed technical analysis indicates. Several small companies are using a similar setup.According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation
The decision this year to begin blocking websites marks a major expansion of the government's online powers. Experts say it is the biggest shift toward routine Internet censorship in the Palestinian Authorityâs history. Aside from one incident in 2008, Palestinians have generally been free to read whatever they wanted.
"This is unprecedented for them," says Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a US digital rights group. "It is troubling because they had done a relatively good job at keeping the Internet open until now."
Prior to these latest developments, Internet under the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been relatively unfettered, with only one site—Dounia Al Watan, a news site that was reporting on corruption within the PA—ever reported as blocked in the West Bank. Gaza’s Internet is considerably more restricted, with sexually explicit websites blocked. A diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks showed evidence that Hamas had exerted pressure over telecom company PalTel to implement the censorship, among other things. Israel also retains significant control over communications infrastructure in both Gaza and the West Bank.Of course this censorship is not just part of the Palestinian Authority, as previously mentioned Hamas (which won the last round of elections in the Palestinian Territory but is NOT expected to be able to maintain that against Fatah this time around - whenever elections might actually happen) is active in their censorship - not just hitting the internet but also suppressing Film.
Despite a relatively unfettered Internet, however, both Hamas in Gaza and the PA in the West Bank have found ways to crack down on Internet users. In 2010, security services in the West Bank arrested a 26-year-old self-proclaimed atheist for posts he had made on Facebook that angered both Christians and Muslims. A year later, the director of Radio Bethlehem, George Canawati, was charged with libel and slander for comments he made on Facebook criticizing Bethlehem’s health directorate. In February of this year, security forces arrested the editor of official news agency Wafa, Rami Samara, for online criticism of PLO leadership. A Palestinian social media conference hosted in Ramallah in December was prohibited from being livestreamed in Gaza by Hamas authorities that claimed that a proper license hadn’t been procured. And most recently, two journalists and a lecturer were arrested for comments posted on Facebook deemed to be critical of the PA.
"Cinema in Gaza is like writing on rocks with your fingers," says Palestinian writer-director Sweilem Al-Absi.Freedom of expression is important and every society struggles with it. But it is particularly important that emerging governments do not engage in such heavy handed acts of "stealth" and censorship, particularly when they are attempting to prove to the world and human rights activists that they will not be as bad or worse than what they replace. It is also an important indicator of what kind of society would be created should it have the power to create a nation.
It's not just the dearth of funds, equipment and studio facilities that prompts such laments from film-makers in the Gaza Strip. Four years into Islamist Hamas rule, cultural censors are fraying the already threadbare local movie industry.
Locked in conflict with Israel and vying against secular Palestinian rivals in the occupied West Bank, Hamas has long invested in television- and Internet-based news, educational shows and even animated clips that advance its political views.
But independent artists say Gaza's Culture Ministry, where projects must be approved before public screening, is quick to crack down on content that does not conform to Hamas edicts.
Hopefully the Palestinian Polity will see the heavy handedness of both the P.A. and Hamas and reject them. However, right now polls in Palestine show no indication of that whatsoever with P.A. President Abbas getting a rating of 56% for people satisfied with his performance.
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