Internet censorship is rampant in the Middle East. Now, the Palestinian Authority is accused of trying to silence government opponents on the Web.
There is irony in this, as the Palestinians portray themselves to the international community as victims of Israel. But when it comes to internal politics, their leaders have shown that they can be as undemocratic and as tough as any in the Middle East.
This week, the Palestinian minister for communications, Mashour Abu Daqa, resigned after accusing senior officials of shutting down opposition websites over the past six months. Four journalists have recently been arrested by security forces, according to the BBC, as well as an activist, who had criticized President Mahmoud Abbas and other officials.
At least eight websites have been blocked: Amad, Fatah Voice, Firas Press, In Light Press, Karama Press, Kofia Press, Milad News, and Palestine Beituna. They were all highly critical of the leadership of Abbas and loyal to one of his harshest opponents, Mohammed Dahlan.
The former communications minister called the clampdown “bad for the image of the Palestinian Authority in the modern world.” It is that but also much more.
The Palestinian moves are part of a larger movement. Throughout the Arab uprisings, the battle for control of the Internet and social websites has been an important part of the story, and governments have learned from the mistakes of others. Shutting down the Internet as a whole backfired in Egypt and Libya, whereas in Iran, Syria, and now the Palestinian Authority, a more calibrated and sophisticated approach has been followed.
Governments fear the power of the Internet with good reason. According to a study of “Information Technology and Political Islam,” conducted by the University of Washington, “although social media did not cause the upheaval in North Africa, they altered the capacity of citizens to affect domestic politics. Online activists created an ecology of civil society, debating contentious issues that could not be discussed in public.” This meant political empowerment, hitherto unknown.
Coinciding with the news from the Palestinian Authority, President Obama on Monday announced a new presidential executive order to penalize Iranian and Syrian Internet-based human rights abuses. The order is a mixed bag of good and bad ideas, and it is too narrowly focused.
The fact is that we will face the problem of Internet censorship and human rights abuses over and over in the Middle East, where autocracy struggles with public opinion and popular protest on the Internet. A coherent U.S. policy is needed that clamps down on human rights abuses—on and off the Internet—and is equally applicable throughout the Middle East, including the Palestinian Authority.