Only a month after Mahmoud Abbas ratified the e-crimes law, which he did without consulting the Palestine Legislative Council or even civil society organisations and journalists’ syndicate, the first to suffer were a large group of journalists in the West Bank, who work for a variety of channels and news websites. They all have one thing in common; they are independent and have clear agendas with a bias towards national issues, mainly resistance; they are not mouthpieces for the Palestinian Authority applauding its actions without question.
The same security services that arrested the journalists fabricated the charges against them. These charges appear to be designed by the Israeli domestic intelligence agency, Shin Bet, and not by a Palestinian court. Working for Al-Aqsa TV is a crime because the channel is banned from working in Palestine, apparently. What’s more, working for online websites affiliated with Hamas is also a crime because the movement is outlawed, according to the charges against Qutaiba Qasim. This is despite the fact that there is an agreement between the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza that calls for Al-Aqsa TV to work in the West Bank in exchange for allowing Palestine TV to work in Gaza, in addition to other conditions. However, the PA pays little heed to agreements it makes with other Palestinian factions.
The new law has a misleading name: “electronic crimes” is not a reference to blackmail and identity theft or publishing and promoting pornography. It is a means to allow the PA to violate people’s privacy as much as it wants. It is clear that it will be aimed at legitimising the muzzling of journalists and putting them on trial for expressing their opinions, especially when they are regarded by the PA to be political opponents. We must remember here, though, that the Israeli occupation is also prosecuting journalists from the same background on the pretext of inciting against the occupation or working with media platforms classified by Israel as hostile. Hence, the situation of freedom of speech in the West Bank will worsen as it is targeted by the PA and the Israelis.
This law with the misleading name should be abolished or it will continue to be a recipe for intimidation and restriction of freedom of opinion and criticism. It will give the security agencies and the political authority the legal figleaf for maintaining a one-colour media, erasing any culture of opposition and protest, leaving the people restricted in their options; they can keep quiet and give tacit approval to the PA, or be critical and get arrested. There is no guarantee that the list of “violations” won’t be expanded under the e-crimes law in such a way that further repressions and oppression is inevitable for critics of the PA and its politics.
So far, protests against the law and the recent detentions of journalists have not reached such a level that real pressure is being put on the PA to force it to withdraw the law. There are many people, journalists and non-journalists, who are reluctant to show solidarity with a certain segment of detainees in the West Bank for fear of being accused of taking sides with Hamas.
What these people need to realise is that when they show solidarity with those arrested, or protest against the PA’s violations, they are actually showing solidarity with their own interests in advance, so to speak, because one day they might become victims of the law as well. Complacency about violations of media freedoms and freedom of speech today will encourage the PA to implement yet more restrictions until they become the norm. At that point, protesting will be useless, and freedom will shrink automatically as a direct result of accepting compromise along factional lines.