The Palestinian Authority (PA) has shut down at least 11 news websites from being accessed in the occupied West Bank, all of which are reportedly affiliated with either the Hamas movement or Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah rival, Mohammed Dahlan.
An employee at a Ramallah-based internet service provider told Turkey-based Anadolu Agency that Palestinian public prosecutor Ahmed Barak tasked the ISP provider with blocking the 11 websites, all of which are located outside of the PA-administered West Bank.
Hussam Zayegh, news director for Shehab News Agency in Gaza, told Mondoweiss that the agency found out its website had been blocked through complaints from their readers.
“We were really surprised, we had no official notification that our website had been blocked in the West Bank due to some legal issues or something,” Zayegh said. “Shehab is a legally functioning news agency registered with the PA Ministry of Information, if they want to block our website then there are official and legal processes the PA prosecutor must go through, but the PA prosecutor Ahmed Barak took it upon himself to make this decision to block our site and others through this unilateral order, which is illegal under the PA’s laws. If they want to block us, they have to open a legal case over the issue and sue us before they are able to legally block us.”
The Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate in a statement slammed the PA, calling the blocks “a clear violation of the basic law [in Palestine] and all media laws.”
The PA has denied that the websites were blocked as a political move, but Zayegh insisted that the motivations for blocking the websites were obviously an attempt to silence criticism.
“These actions taken by the PA against media are happening during a contentious period in Gaza. Gaza is suffering from many different angles, the PA trying to cut salaries, no water, and the recent electricity cuts,” Zayegh said referring to a recent decision by the PA to cut Gaza electricity by 40 percent. “Now the PA is trying to make the situation worse for the Palestinian people and blocking the media coming out of Gaza. In Gaza we are being attacked by the PA and by Israel, both of which are using any sector they can to beat Gaza and increase the suffering here, and now they want to silence the media reporting on it.”
In response to the allegations of politically motivated censorship, a PA official told Palestinian News Agency Ma’an News that the websites were blocked due to “a number of pending cases against them for reporting false information and being unethical.”
Zayegh denied knowledge of any pending cases levied against his agency.
“We have tried several times, again and again, to contact the prosecutor for answers, but every time he learns he is on the phone with Shehab, he hangs up the phone and blocks our number,” he said.
Ammar Dwaik, the chairman of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights, also condemned the decision to block the websites.
“Blocking websites, especially news sites, is contrary to the principles of human rights, specifically the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to access to information, as it has no basis in law, and is bad for our people,” Dwaik wrote on Facebook.
The editor of “Palestine,” one of the online newspapers that were blocked, posted to Facebook on Thursday, also condemning the PA’s actions.
“As part of an ongoing policy of suppressing Palestinian media freedom, the newspaper’s website was recently blocked,” Iyad al-Qarra wrote. “Unfortunately, local ISPs responded [to the public prosecutor’s directive] by swiftly blocking the targeted websites.”
“Our colleagues with technical expertise are currently trying to undo the move, as our newspaper — through its website — has tens of thousands of readers across the West Bank,” he added.
In addition to Shehab News Agency, “Palestine,” and the Palestinian Information Center, all of which have alleged ties with the Hamas movement, two news sites affiliated with exiled Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan were also blocked: Amad and “The Voice of Fatah.”
With 6.8 million followers on Facebook, Shehab News Agency has the largest social media following of any Palestine-based news agency. Zayegh said the agency was working hard to resolve the issue and return thing to “how they worked before.”
“They’re accusing us of insulting government officials in high positions and incitement and a number of things, but they have explained no legal proof of this, we have the legal right to know why they have closed our websites,” Zayegh said. “Meanwhile we are working hard to fix the issue technically, and our readers have reported to us that they have found multiple avenues around the block by using website proxies and other electronic pathways to view our site.”