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PalTel: No choice in Web censorship orders

April 25, 2012 7:54 P.M. (Updated: May 26, 2012 11:44 P.M.)
By: George Hale
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- The largest telecommunications company in the occupied territories has no choice but to enforce orders issued by the Palestinian Authority, its chief executive said Wednesday.

Ammar Aker says PalTel conducts its operations in compliance with regulatory and legal instructions, but has no further involvement in decisions imposed by the government.

"Our role is to implement those orders and instructions and not to enter into such matters that the company cannot deal with or accept to be part of," Aker said in an emailed statement.

The executive's remarks further distanced the company from evidence of a secretive initiative by the Palestinian Authority to censor websites critical of President Mahmoud Abbas.

Ma'an published Monday the first part in an investigation into the program, allegedly ordered by attorney-general Ahmad al-Mughni, to force PalTel and others to block access to eight websites.

"Since its inception, Paltel has been conducting its activities and operations dealing with the Palestinian National Authority and its governmental bodies in compliance with the applicable laws and regulations and related official, regulatory and judicial orders that are issued by those entities," Aker said.

"Paltel Group has no choice except to abide by those official, judicial, regulatory and legal orders on the basis or allegations related to competent jurisdictions among those official bodies and entities."

The PalTel Group is the largest Palestinian telecom provider. With its subsidiaries Jawwal and Hadara, it provides the majority of Internet, landline and mobile services in the West Bank and Gaza.

'Dangerous' move to restrict speech

In New York, a press freedom group sharply criticized the Palestinian Authority.

"For a free online press, the Internet has to be open for everyone," said Danny O'Brien, Internet advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"By blocking these websites, the Palestinian Authority is creating a dangerous new infrastructure for the suppression of speech in its own country," he said in a statement.

Experts say the Palestinian Authority's new plan exceeds past efforts to control online speech. The government is only known to have blocked one news site, Donia al-Watan, for a few weeks in 2008. At the time, it acknowledged the decision and informed Internet users.

The latest initiative is less transparent. Attempts to load the websites on local networks produce standard error messages. The messages do not contain an explanation.

Palestinian spokespeople say they were not briefed on the initiative.

The affected websites have been described as loyal to Abbas' rival Muhammad Dahlan, a former Fatah leader and security commander in Gaza before Hamas took power in 2007. He has since relocated abroad after being accused by Abbas of plotting a coup in the West Bank.

"The blocking of these sites seems to be blatantly political," said Padraig Reidy, news editor for Index on Censorship, a UK-based non-profit that tracks suppression of speech around the world.

"This kind of action is not the kind that any genuine democratic government should be involved in, and it reflects extremely poorly on the Palestinian Authority."
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