By George Hale and Wajde al-Jafari
RAMALLAH (Ma'an) -- President Mahmoud Abbas issued formal instructions Saturday to reverse an order censoring news websites linked to one of his fiercest critics.
"From this point forward, the attorney general and the judiciary are prohibited from shutting down or blocking websites, and they are instructed to lift any existing bans," Abbas said of the order.
"Freedom of expression and opinion is a natural right enshrined in the (Palestinian) Basic Law," or constitution, Abbas said. He urged journalists to nevertheless maintain their objectivity.
The order was Abbas' first public acknowledgment of the controversy that erupted after Ma'an revealed his attorney general, Ahmad al-Mughni, was forcing private Internet companies to block access to websites loyal to Muhammad Dahlan. Abbas and the former Fatah leader have feuded for years.
The attorney general is to begin distributing clarifications to West Bank Internet providers within 24 hours, informing them they are no longer required to block any websites, he said Saturday. Abbas briefed him in a meeting shortly before announcing the instructions, al-Mughni said.
When first approached earlier this year, Al-Mughni denied knowledge of the blocking. He later acknowledged his role after the communications minister criticized him on public radio and abruptly resigned.
The ex-minister, Mashour Abu Daka, alleges that al-Mughni authorized the initiative despite serious concerns it was illegal. He said al-Mughni "made up his own laws" to justify it. 'Social fabric'
Other Palestinian figures followed suit and criticized the initiative, among them PA premier Salam Fayyad, PLO leader Hanan Ashrawi and the president's own advisor on Internet issues, Sabri Saidam. US officials and press freedom groups have also spoken out against the initiative.
On Saturday, the attorney general defended the blocking and his involvement. The purpose was to "maintain the social fabric," al-Mughni told Ma'an.
He warned that "Even though the ban is being lifted, complaints by a number of citizens (against the sites) remain. They will be pursued by the competent authorities."
The former communications minister, meanwhile, seemed satisfied by the reversal.
"This is common sense," Abu Daka said shortly after Abbas' announcement. "I'm sure that once he had the facts, he took the decision. This gave us a bad name internationally and opened up the Palestinian Authority to a lot of criticism. It was legitimate criticism, by the way."
Abu Daka said he did not know if the president was initially aware of the attorney general's actions, but he doubted al-Mughni came up with the idea himself.
The former minister said that if Abbas approved the plan, "it was on very bad advice. If he knew about this, he was given bad information and it had negative consequences for us."
He added: "We can debate; this is a good thing. Who cares if a few websites want to criticize us? Until two weeks ago, most people hadn't even heard of them."