Mahmoud Abbas has been criticised for his alleged crackdown on critical websites
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has blocked up to eight critical news websites in the West Bank, according to a report released by an independent news agency on Monday.
websites, Amad, Fatah Voice, Firas Press, In Light Press, Karama Press, Kofia Press, Milad News, and Palestine Beituna, have been inaccessible to most Internet users in the West Bank since early February, according to a report released by the Bethlehem-based Maan News Agency.
The revelations came to light after Maan partnered with the Open Observatory of Network Interference, a new project by web security experts, to track the censorship.
The decision this year to begin blocking websites marks a major expansion of the government\'s online powers. Experts say it is the biggest shift toward routine Internet censorship in the Palestinian Authority’s history. Aside from one incident in 2008, Palestinians have generally been free to read whatever they wanted.
Julian York, director for international freedom of expression at the electronic Frontier foundation, a US digital rights group, told the Maan News Agency that the move was unprecedented. \"It is troubling because they had done a relatively good job at keeping the Internet open until now,\" he said.
Many of the sites have been described as loyal to Muhammad Dahlan, a former Fatah leader and critic of Abbas. A feud between them took on new urgency last summer, when Fatah sought to expel the former strongman and security forces raided his home. As far back as June 2011, the PA was complaining about its inability to shut down alleged Dahlan media based abroad, the al-Hayat newspaper reported at the time. Four of those sites are now being blocked.
Several Palestinian officials have expressed reservations about the decision, calling it embarrassing and counterproductive. One of them, a member of Salam Fayyad\'s cabinet, agreed to speak to the Maan news agency on the record for this story. Other officials who spoke to Maan in recent weeks were not authorised by the PA or PalTel to discuss either the blocking decision or the technology being used to enforce it.
According to a Palestinian official with first-hand knowledge of the decision, the attorney general was acting on instructions from higher up in the government - either from the president\'s office or an intelligence director. Still, there is no indication a judge approved any element of the censorship programme, suggesting al-Mughni issued the decree under his own perceived authority, the official told Maan News Agency.
Other Palestinian officials more readily pointed a finger at al-Mughni.
\"The attorney general is responsible,\" communications minister Mashour Abu Daka told Maan. He said al-Mughni submitted the order to PalTel over his objections and despite concerns it could be illegal. There is no Palestinian law that permits Web censorship and the attorney general knows it, Abu Daka charged.
\"He made up his own laws to justify what was solely his decision,\" the minister said. \"Blocking websites is against the public interest. I oppose it without exception.”
The attorney general is already facing criticism from journalists and human rights groups for ordering the arrest in March of a newspaper reporter accused of defaming the foreign minister. He also signed off on the recent arrests of two bloggers after they criticised Abbas on Facebook. Palestinian journalists have held a number of demonstrations protesting the clampdown.
By contrast, the blocking has gone largely unnoticed. Mada, a press freedom group, raised the issue of Milad and Amad, while US blogger \"Challah Hu Akbar\" reported extensively about In Light Press, but many Palestinians remain unaware the Internet is censored. This is partly because providers have not acknowledged their cooperation nor have subscribers been told any websites are off-limits.
PalTel representatives refused to answer basic questions such as when they received the order or who signed it, but extensive testing shows its Internet provider Hadara has blocked as many as eight websites at a time. A PalTel spokeswoman said in an email that \"we only implement government decisions and we do not get involved in the decisions they make as long as they are backed by the existing laws.\"
The testing was conducted over four weeks by Maan and the Open Observatory of Network Interference, a new project by Web security experts Arturo Filasto and Jacob Appelbaum to track censorship around the world. Using a tool called an OONI probe, they scanned 1.1 million websites for a specific type of blocking.
Experts who have analysed the data say the company configured an open-source software called Squid to detect the blocked sites and redirect users. Squid was originally developed with funding from two US government agencies, but neither one has any control over its distribution today. Syria and Lebanon also use it for Web blocking, according to experts.
Experts say Squid\'s West Bank debut indicates that while the PA may be more determined than before to censor the Internet, it is less willing to spend much time or money doing it. The software is free and easy to alter for censorship.
The new programme\'s timing may also embarrass the PA\'s financial backers in the United States and European Union, both of which are considering legislation to curb the export of Western technologies used to censor political speech in the Middle East.
In Washington, a spokeswoman told Maan News Agency that the State Department was \"concerned about any reports regarding the use of technologies to restrict access to information. The United States advocates Internet freedom.\"
She pointed to a December 2011 speech in which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed for stronger efforts on behalf of those \"who are blocked from accessing entire categories of Internet content.\"
In separate developments, Israeli authorities have extended the administrative detention of at least three Palestinian journalists without charge, according to various news reports. The decisions by Israeli military courts to extend the detentions were made over the past three months.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent, nonprofit organisation, has documented the arrests and detentions of the journalists. Walid Khalid Harb, the director of the Gaza-based \"Falastin\", was imprisoned on May 8, 2011, and his detention was extended for six months in February, according to his employer. Nawaf al-Amer, the satellite programme coordinator for the London-based Al-Quds TV, was imprisoned on June 28, 2011, and his detention was extended for three months in April, according to news reports.
No formal charges have been brought against any of the journalists. Under administrative detention procedures, Israeli authorities may hold detainees for six months without charge or trial and then extend the detention an unlimited number of times.