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Palestinian Authority shows its ‘authoritarian’ face through Cyber Crimes Law

Aug. 22, 2017 7:30 P.M. (Updated: Aug. 23, 2017 1:57 P.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- Palestinian prisoners’ rights group Addameer has joined a growing chorus opposition to the Palestinian Authority (PA) -- which the NGO described as “an ever increasingly authoritarian regime” -- for a new far-reaching law that effectively criminalizes “any form of digital dissent.”

The decree, issued by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on June 24, has been described by rights groups as “draconian” and “the worst law in the PA’s history,” for imposing jail time, hard labor, and fines for creating, publishing, and sharing information deemed dangerous by the PA.

In a statement last last week, the leftist PLO faction the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestinian (PFLP) called the law “a repressive tool” against all who disagree, oppose, and “confront the misdeeds” of the PA.

The PFLP said the law’s passage came as “the (Israeli) occupation is waging a frantic campaign against journalists, including prosecutions, arrests and attacks, sometimes amounting to direct physical targeting leading to the death and injury of dozens of journalists,” and that that PA “is seeking to prosecute and arrest the same journalists.”

In detailed breakdown of the new law published Sunday, Addameer, which provides legal support to Palestinian political prisoners held by Israel and the PA, explained that the vague and far-reaching law could mean prison time, hard labor, and/or hundreds of dollars in fines for journalists, leakers, meme-sharers, and someone “watching Game of Thrones using a VPN.”

“The most troubling aspects of this document are its vague definitions of what constitutes a punishable offence, its extension of punishment to any individual who assists or agrees with what the decree considers a felony, and the clear attacks on dissenters, journalists, and leakers,” the prisoners’ rights group explained.

Addameer slammed the law for using quasi-legitimate restrictions on hacking and internet fraud as legal camouflage for serious curtailments of privacy and freedom of expression.

While the rights group said there was a “kernel of truth” that such a decree was needed to combat hackers and fraudsters, “it by no means represents a ‘necessity’ as stipulated in the Basic Law.”

Palestinian Basic Law says that presidential decrees may only be issued in a “time of necessity, if the situation is urgent enough as to not be able to wait until the next sitting of the Palestinian Legislative Council,” according to Addameer.

Since Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006, the Palestinian Legislative Council has not convened in Ramallah, meaning that Abbas, who extended his presidency indefinitely in 2009, has been ruling solely by decree for a decade.

Prison time, fines, or both

The law mandates that “any person who…has abused any information technology” can face imprisonment, a fine 200 to 3,000 Jordanian dinars, or both. If the alleged offence affects government data, a minimum sentence of five years of hard labor and a minimum fine of 5,000 Jordanian dinars ($7,070) is called for, Addameer said.

This clause, according to Addameer, is clearly directed at journalists and leakers, though such “abuse” is undefined and open to interpretation.

A person who threatens to commit a felony or an undefined “immoral act” on the internet also faces temporary hard labor.

Anyone who creates or shares content that “infringes on public morals” faces a minimum one-year sentence or a minimum fine of 1,000 Jordanian dinars capped at 5,000 dinars ($7,070), or both.

The greatest threat to press freedoms in the law, Addameer said, is an article that punishes “anyone who creates or manages a website or an information technology platform that aims to publish news that would endanger the integrity of the Palestinian state, the public order or the internal or external security of the State” with a fine between $1,414 and $7,070 or at least a year of jail time, or both.

Anyone who shares such content would also be punished with a maximum one-year prison sentence or fine of between 200 Jordanian dinars ($283) and 1,000 dinars ($1414), or both.

“Something as simple as a share on Facebook could result in a fine, jail time, or both. The decree even goes as far as to criminalize the use of any means to bypass the blocking of certain websites, such as a VPN,” Addameer said.

The decree also demands website providers comply with the PA to block certain websites, enshrines the right for the PA to seize equipment allegedly used in cyber crime felonies, and allows the PA to monitor anyone’s communications and data for a renewable period of 15 days with magistrate’s court approval. Violators of these clauses can expect hard labor or temporary hard labor.

“In essence, besides the infringement on freedom of the press, the PA can now imprison and fine individuals for a Facebook share, watching Game of Thrones using a VPN, making an ‘offensive’ meme, posting a tweet against certain policies, or asserting political allegiances,” Addameer said.

2 known instances of law being used so far

Addameer said that the PA has already used the law to curtail press freedoms and freedom of expression at least twice.

Most recently, five journalists were arrested and accused of ‘leaking information to hostile entities,” and four others were also questioned. Initial claims said the arrests were not related to the decree, but the prosecutor later cited the law as the reason for their arrest.

The journalists were held for five days and were made to agree to a 1,000 dinar bond, the amount stipulated in the decree. "It is unclear if charges will be further pursued but, at this point, none have been officially issued," according to Addameer.

The journalists, barring one freelancer, all worked for news outlets that were blocked by the PA in mid-August. The majority of the 30 affected sites were affiliated to PA rivals Hamas and discharged Fatah member Muhammad Dahlan, with a few others being associated with so-called Islamic State.

“The fact that these websites are run by political rivals to the current ruling faction of the PA indicates that that these laws are being and, will continue to be used, to stifle free speech, legitimate decent (sic), and discussions regarding the state of politics in Palestine,” Addameer said.

Despite not being detained under the decree, Addameer also cited the arrest of Palestinian Today journalist Jihad Barakat, as a violation of press freedoms since the law was enacted. He was detained for filming Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah being searched by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint.

Barakat was charged for a range of offenses, including panhandling, for which he will stand trial in the PA court system in September.

Addameer reminded the PA of its obligations under a number of human rights conventions the decree violates regarding freedom of expression, to which the Ramallah-based government has committed.

“Despite the ‘Electronic Crimes Law’ using the language of ‘national security,’ the decree itself is clearly contrary to the spirit of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The fact that the limits on free speech have been applied to opposition voices, and critical journalists, is more than enough to conclude that the PA is currently in violation of their international commitments,” the prisoners’ rights group affirmed.

“Furthermore, Addameer urges that the Palestinian Authority must abide by the conventions to which it is a party, especially considering the ongoing deteriorating human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territories.”
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