Make fun of Mahmoud Abbas at your peril

Palestine must not only focus on ending Israel’s human rights abuses, but also its own, writes author.

Palestinian Authority To Seek Full UN Recognition At The General Assembly Next Week
A comment made by 26-year-old Anas Awwad dubbing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas "the new striker in Real Madrid" has landed the young man in jail [Getty Images]

A casual comment on Facebook, poking fun at a sporting politician. This sentence could refer to US President Obama’s recent skeet shooting outing, or former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s attempts to play football in a suit. It could also refer to a comment made in response to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who kicked a football around on a visit to Barcelona Football Club in 2011. 

It does, in fact, refer to Abbas. But whereas comments made about Obama and Sarkozy’s sporting endeavours are shrugged off by the politicians and their ilk, a comment made by 26-year-old Anas Awwad dubbing Abbas “the new striker in Real Madrid” has landed the young man in jail. 

According to Awwad’s lawyer, the Palestinian judiciary has applied Article 195 of Jordan’s penal code, which criminalises criticism of the Jordanian king. 

Lèse-majesté, while abhorrent, is an unsurprising crime to have in the books in a monarchy. Jordan, Thailand, Morocco and Norway all criminalise insults to the monarchy, while Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands all consider it a civil offence. But its use by the Palestinian Authority – which has worked hard to sell its commitment to press freedom and democracy – is more surprising, considering the language of the law specifically refers to the monarch. 

Awwad’s case is not the first time that Jordanian law has been used to prosecute online speech in Palestine. In 2010, Walid Hasayin was arrested in Qalqiliya and accused of violating Article 273 of the Jordanian Penal Code, which deals with insults to “religious feelings of other persons or their religious faith”. And in 2011, another man was arrested under the same article. 

The use of Jordanian law by Palestine’s judiciary is not uncommon. In addition to the Basic Law established in 2002, Palestinian law is an amalgam of Egyptian, Jordanian and the codes left over from the era of the British Mandate. And yet, the application of Jordanian law can frequently work against the interest of Palestinian citizens, such as in cases of labour disputes, “honour” crimes and speech. 

Declining freedoms

Although Palestine’s ranking on Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index has increased over the past few years, growing internet penetration has raised the spectre of unbridled freedom for the PA. With nearly a quarter of the West Bank population on Facebook, new opportunities for online organising and sharing of news have arisen over the past few years… just the recipe to threaten an insecure government. 

In 2012, at least 10 individuals were arrested for public criticism of the PA, online or off. In April, two journalists and a lecturer were arrested for comments on Facebook deemed critical of the PA, coinciding with the PA’s awarding of a press freedom prize to American journalist Helen Thomas. The arrests were condemned by watchdog groups, including the International Press Institute and the Committee to Protect Journalists. And Palestinian groups, such as the Independent Commission for Human Rights, have called for greater press freedom. 

“In addition to the Basic Law established in 2002, Palestinian law is an amalgam of Egyptian, Jordanian and the codes left over from the era of the British Mandate.”

One of the targeted journalists, Tariq Khamis, told the Electronic Intifada that while his arrest was technically for a comment made on Facebook, during his interrogation, he was questioned about other articles he had written. Khamis added: 

“The [PA] regime is very similar to other Arab regimes. If the PA had trust in themselves, they would let journalists get on with their work. But because of their mistakes and corruption, they fear the work of journalists.” 

Exposing corruption

Accusations of corruption have been levied at the Palestinian Authority for years and its heavy-handed response is not new. In 2008, the PA reportedly blocked the website of Gaza-based media outlet Donia Al-Watan following a series of reports on corruption, the first instance of online censorship in Palestine. 

But in 2012, the PA’s tolerance for criticism drastically decreased. In April, blogger Jamal Abu Rihan was arrested for launching a Facebook campaign demanding an end to corruption. Columnist Jihad Harb was later sentenced to two months in prison on charges of libel and slander for raising questions about cronyism within Abbas’ office. 

In addition to targeting individual journalists, the PA has attempted to wipe criticism from the web. Last year, Ma’an News uncovered evidence of website blocking, a practice otherwise largely unheard of in the West Bank. The eight blocked websites were all news sites critical of President Abbas and were eventually unblocked after Communications Minister Mashour Abu Daka spoke out against the blocking as being “against the public interest”, resulting in the resignation of Attorney General Ahmad al-Mughni. 

Indeed, the PA’s attitude toward free expression is looking more and more like that of its authoritarian cousins in the Gulf. By comparison, internet access in neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon remains unfettered, while both countries rank significantly higher on Reporters Without Borders’ 2013 index

International obligations

Although Palestine’s status at the United Nations is that of a non-member observer state, it may be eligible to ratify core human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). While most discussions have focused on Palestine’s right to ratify the Rome Statute, giving it access to the International Criminal Court (ICC), ratification of the ICCPR – Article 19 of which guarantees freedom of expression – would demonstrate Palestine’s commitments to human rights and fundamental freedoms. 

Although Palestinian officials have pledged to uphold human rights, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation issued a statement in October recommending “an in-depth study to determine whether any convention shall be ratified by Palestine”. While, as Human Rights Watch noted, it’s commendable that the Palestinian leadership is studying the treaties, its delay in ratifying them inspires little faith in their commitment to upholding fundamental rights and freedoms. 

In order to be taken seriously on the world stage, Palestine must not only focus on ending Israel’s human rights abuses, but also its own.

Jillian York is director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.

Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork