Friday’s Fact: Hebron Activist’s Arrest another Indication of the Deterioration of the State of Freedom of Speech in Palestine

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Issa Amro, a prominent political and anti-settlement activist, was finally released on bail, Sunday; six days after Palestinian Security Forces arrested him in Hebron. Amro was arrested after a post of his on social media was deemed too risqué for the PA. In the post, Amro was expressing support for Ayman Qawsmeh, another Palestinian political activist, who was arrested after he posted on Facebook a day earlier, according to a Ma’an News Network report. These arrests arrive on the heels of a broad-reaching cyber security law that has been criticized by Palestinian and international organizations and observers as a threat to freedom of speech.

 

The current case started when Qawasmeh, “the director of the Hebron-based radio station  was detained by the PA three days after the radio station’s offices were raided and shut down by the Israeli army”, according to the Ma’an News Network. Qawsmeh’s arrest came after he called on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah to resign. In a Facebook post on the 3rd of September, Amro, a Hebron-based coordinator for Youth against Settlements and a former field researcher for the Israeli NGO B’Tselem, criticized the PA for arresting Qawsmeh and stifling freedom of expression. Palestinian forces arrested Amro midday Monday. Amnesty International, in a statement on their website, described the arrest as “a shameless attack on freedom of expression”.

 

The law, which was passed through presidential decree, states “anyone who has established a website, disseminated information on the internet or any information technology tool, promoting ideas and programs violating the public order and morals, [will] be sentenced to prison for a period of no less than five years”, according to Al-Monitor News site. On the one hand, this language is deemed helpful by police as it addresses cyber crime specifically, which has not been addressed by a specific law before.  One the other hand the law was described as a ‘”retrograde step” designed to intimidate Palestinians and keep them from criticizing the political system’, by the Union of Palestinian Journalists’ General Secretariat.

 

This has not been the only case of suppression of freedom of speech in the West Bank since the passing of a new and broad-reaching cyber security law in June. Back in August, the PA arrested five journalists from the West Bank after accusing them of having “leaked information to hostile entities.” Furthermore, the PA authorities used the law shortly after its passing to block 11 websites affiliated with Hamas and parliament member Mohammed Dahlan, an Abbas rival.

 

This deterioration of the treatment of activists is alarming to many international observers. Amnesty international describes “a chilling escalation in attacks on media and freedom of expression by both the Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and the Hamas de facto administration in Gaza, detaining a string of journalists and shutting down opposition websites.” This is in addition to Israel’s repeated violations against journalists and activists since the beginning of the Occupation.

 

In this current climate, insecurity and volatility is prevalent among activists and journalist. Observers can also stipulate that the law can be used to curb the freedom of speech of ordinary citizens. It is this trend that is most worrisome to some Palestinians, as a well-intended law can be abused.

 

Photograph: The Presidential Hospitality Palace to be turned into a national library. Credit: alarabiya.net.