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Ashrawi urges government to unblock critical websites

April 28, 2012 4:25 A.M. (Updated: May 26, 2012 11:44 A.M.)
RAMALLAH (Ma'an) -- Senior PLO official Hanan Ashrawi called Saturday on the Palestinian Authority to stop blocking access to news websites that report critically of President Mahmoud Abbas.

Ashrawi said the government had no legal authority to instruct Internet service providers to censor the Web and denounced the move as a violation of freedom of expression in Palestine.

The Palestinian Authority began blocking access in February to eight websites considered loyal to a rival of Abbas, according to officials who oppose the decision. On Thursday, communications minister Mashour Abu Daka announced his resignation after criticizing the initiative.

"Palestine should not promote censorship, whether on the Internet or in other forms of communication," Ashrawi said.

She called the new initiative "in complete contradiction to the principles of the (Palestinian) Basic Law."

The plan to block the eight websites, first disclosed Monday, has embarrassed Palestinian officials and sparked criticism from the United States, its largest financial backer. A State Department spokeswoman said US officials were concerned and raising the issue with the Palestinian Authority.

"Unfortunately, these recent acts undermine our efforts to create a Palestinian democratic pluralistic and tolerant society based on the rule of law," Ashrawi said.

"It is imperative that we safeguard the freedom of expression, access to information and all other fundamental human rights of the Palestinian people," she said, adding that they are also essential components in the struggle against Israeli occupation and repression.

Other Palestinian officials said they were astonished to hear of the blocking.

Eyad Sarraj, the head of a commission to implement a unity deal between Fatah and Hamas, said Thursday that in light of pro-democracy protests across the region, "we expect more openness to the world, yet there are others who want to take us backwards."

He added: "The Palestinian people have struggled and are still struggling for their freedom. They should not be rewarded with more siege and suppression -- especially not by their own people."

News of the minister's resignation late Thursday fueled speculation that he was quitting in protest or was forced out after criticizing the initiative. Abu Daka says he decided to quit weeks ago but PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad only accepted the resignation Thursday.

Hours earlier, he told local radio the attorney general's decision was no less serious than financial wrongdoing. "Withholding information from the public is a form of corruption," he said, adding that "What's happening now is an attempt to play them for fools."

In Jerusalem, a Palestinian Authority spokesman denied the government had new plans to censor the Web, but he acknowledged "legislative gaps" that leave some media vulnerable.
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