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Too little outcry over Palestinian censorship

by David Keyes

The Washington Post.

A university lecturer and single mother of two, Ismat Abdul-Khaleq, was arrested in the West Bank on March 28 for criticizing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Facebook. Perhaps this is what Abbas meant when he said during a recent interview with al-Jazeera that his party, Fatah, was a political and ideological copy of the terrorist group Hamas. His words: “In all honesty, there are no disagreements between us.”

In recent months, Hamas has cracked down on dissidents, women and online activists. It has arrested journalists, banned a social media conference and jailed several bloggers. One university student in Gaza, who asked not to be named, expressed the fears of many when we spoke this year. “Hamas has many modern apparatuses to censor the Internet and telephone systems,” she said. “But even without this, they have infiltrated our society deeply.”

Under Abbas, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has replicated Hamas’ brutality. Slander of high-ranking officials, including the president, is illegal and punishable by up to two years in prison. The public prosecutor, Ahmad al-Mughani, said of Abdul-Khaleq’s Facebook criticism, “These expressions go beyond freedom of expression.” A spokesman for Palestinian Authority security forces told journalists that Abdul-Khaleq, who is being held in solitary confinement, was jailed for “extending her tongue” against the president. In fact, she advocated dismantling the Palestinian Authority and called Abbas a “fascist.”

The Palestinian Journalist’s Syndicate has called Abdul-Khaleq’s arrest a “dangerous precedent and a violation of all society traditions” as well as “a real setback for Palestinian journalists.”

Abdul-Khaleq is just one of a number of Palestinian activists and journalists who have been jailed for deeds as minor as online posts. George Canawati, director of Radio Bethlehem 2000 , was arrested in September over a Facebook post that criticized Bethlehem’s health department.

Mamdouh Hamamreh, an employee of al-Quds TV, was detained last fall and charged with libel and slander against Abbas for allegedly posting on Facebook a picture of Abbas standing next to a photo of an actor who plays a traitor on a Syrian soap opera.

Journalist Rami Samara was held in February after criticizing Palestinian leaders on Facebook. And Palestinian journalist Youssef al-Shayeb was jailed last month on allegations of defaming public officials after he reported on corruption among Palestinian diplomats.

When 33-year-old Palestinian Khader Adnan, a member of the Islamic Jihad terrorist organization, went on a hunger strike in an Israeli prison for several weeks to protest the legality of his detention, millions of people read of his plight — because it was reported in articles in numerous newspapers and on websites. By contrast, almost no Western media have covered the hunger strike of Shayeb, who was released on bail this week. And even fewer human rights groups have taken up Shayeb’s cause.

“This is a totalitarian regime,” Palestinian journalist Adel Samara wrote in an online forum last week. “What would happen when we fulfill our dream of having our own state? We will all be sitting with al-Shayeb” in prison.

“Imagine what would have happened had al-Shayeb been arrested in Algiers or China. The West would have erupted, and many articles would have been written about him.”

Samara has voiced support for autocratic regimes in the past, but even he recognizes the striking double standard. On April 1, yet another journalist, Tarek Khamis, was arrested by Palestinian forces after he posted criticism on Facebook of the recent Palestinian Authority crackdown. He has been released, but these actions succeed in intimidating journalists and others. Meanwhile, the world’s silence is deafening — and revealing.

David Keyes is executive director of the New York-based organization Advancing Human Rights and cofounder of CyberDissidents.org. Email: david.keyes@advancinghumanrights.org. Twitter: @davidmkeyes.