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Palestine's new electronic crime law 'big setback to freedom of expression'

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has cracked down on online dissent [Getty]

Date of publication: 17 August, 2017

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been criticised by rights groups for introducing an electronic crime law which punishes anyone seen to be "disturbing social harmony" online.

Press freedom and freedom of expression in Palestine is being threatened in a new crackdown being implemented by the Palestinian Authority (PA), local rights groups say.

A new "electronic crime" law has been ratified by the PA, cracking down on online dissent in the occupied territories, where social media is a popular platform for debate.

Anyone who is seen "disturbing social harmony" on social media faces being sentenced to 15 years of hard labour, according to the decree ratified by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas, whose presidency expired in 2009, reportedly issued the decree without public debate, causing outrage among Palestinians who see it as a serious restriction on freedom of speech.

Ammar Dweik, head of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights, said the new law is "one of the worst" since the Palestinian autonomy government was established in 1994.

He says the vague definition of "social harmony" makes cracking down on activists and journalists all the easier, adding the law was "a big setback to the freedoms in the West Bank".

A Palestinian prosecutor insisted that a new law on electronic crimes was needed to close legal loopholes that in the past allowed offenders, such as hackers, to go unpunished.

Abbas' government also blocked 30 websites over the past month, according to Palestinian Centre for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA).

The majority of the websites blocked are ones that show sympathy for rival group Hamas and former PA strongman Mohammed Dahlan.

Last week, PA security forces carried out overnight raids across the West Bank and broke into the houses of a number of journalists working for Hamas-linked news outlets, according to the lawyer of one of those arrested and an official in the association of Palestinian journalists.

But it is not only Hamas and Dahlan supporters that are seemingly targeted, but anyone seen as critical of the PA, regardless of their age, gender or political affiliation.

In June there was outrage over the arrsest of a 23-year-old student who criticised a PA official on Facebook.

Palestinian leftist Nassar Jaradat criticised Jibril Rajoub after he appeared on Israeli TV's Channel 2 and said the Western Wall would remain under Israeli sovereignty.

The arrest was condemned by the president of the Union of Palestinian Communities and Organisations in Europe, Fawzi Ismail, who described it as an exasperation of the PA's "framework of 'security coordination' with the Israeli occupation".

Palestinian communist party PFLP also released a statement condemning the PA's "revolving door policy" of collaborating with Israel, which according to the PFLP has "led to the arrest and martyrdom of a number of young activists and resistance strugglers".

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