Fears that Hamas could extend Gaza porn ban to political websites

12 October 2012

121012-internet-cafe.jpg

Palestinian students in Gaza check their exam results on the internet

(Abed Rahim Khatib / APA images)

Palestinians in Gaza are having trouble accessing news websites after Hamas announced a crackdown on Internet pornography recently.

Abeer Ayoub, a 25-year-old political activist from Gaza City, has been unable to read the Israeli newspaper Haaretz online over the past few weeks. And when she tried to visit a website with the words “hot spots” in the title, a notice from the Hamas-run ministry for information technology appeared on the computer screen. It requested that she fill in a form, giving reasons why she wished to view the website in question.

“It is up to me to choose what I want to watch and what I do not want to watch,” she said. “I strongly believe that this is some kind of repression of freedoms, so I do not agree with it.”

In August, Hamas announced that it had ordered the main Internet service providers in Gaza to block access to sexually explicit material (“Hamas ‘to block pornographic websites in Gaza’,” BBC News, 31 August). Firms that fail to comply with the order face fines of $300 per day.

“We took this decision in order to preserve our Palestinian Islamic culture here from information technology that would definitely harm our society,” Kamal al-Masri, head of the licensing department in the Gaza-based ministry for information technology and telecommunications, said. “We are a conservative community here and many families and organizations have complained of those websites and how they have an impact on their own adolescents or children from a moral point of view.”

Asked about the spread of extremist interpretations of the Islamic faith in Gaza, al-Masri said that the ban could in future extend beyond pornographic websites:  “I can tell you that all websites that advocate violence, spreading of drugs or extremist ideologies, can be blocked within the terms of the law and the national consensus. Yet, what we have actually started is blocking access to pornography-related websites only.”

Porn only?

Seven Internet service providers in Gaza have complied with Hamas’s order. A number of these companies declined to comment when contacted by The Electronic Intifada.

Orange Palestine, a firm that has been in business for a decade, said it agreed with the move.

“We have been doing our best technically to prevent any sort of breach by users to that ban,” said Osama Abu Zbaida, director-general of Orange Palestine. “We are blocking access to pornography websites, proxy sites and some other hacking sites.”

“Prior to the decision to block access to those sexual websites, we have been carrying out the same procedure with such websites, on the request of our own subscribers,” Abu Zbaida said. “Families here are very cautious about the use by their own children, especially adolescents, of the Internet. They are rather relieved by the recent ban.”

Orange Palestine is not stopping Internet users from seeing all websites with the word “hot” in their title, he said. “What we do is that we block websites and sub-websites that contain sexual materials,” Abu Zbaida added. “Those containing information on sexual education, including photos of human body, are not being blocked.”

Assault on freedom?

Opinions among Palestinians about the ban are mixed. Mutaz al-Ijla, a 23-year-old living in Gaza City, said the ban “goes with our culture.” He said that “Satan is very good at deviating people from the right path” and argued that “some form of self-censorship is needed,” given that young people spend a lot of time on the Internet.

Yet others see the ban as part of a wider pattern of decrees which restrict individual freedoms. Over the past few years, Hamas has forbidden women from smoking the shisha, a water pipe popular in restaurants and cafes. It has also prohibited men from working as haidressers for women or in beauty salons that women frequent.

Restrictions on Internet usage take on an added significance considering that Gaza remains under siege.

Imposed by Israel, the siege has often made it difficult for Palestinians in Gaza to get hold of books or newspapers in hard copy. The Internet has proven to be a vital source of knowledge and entertainment from the outside world.

Ibrahim Abrash, a Gaza-based political analyst and university professor, is unconvinced by claims from Hamas that the pornography ban is purely motivated by moral considerations. “I believe that their aim is to start censorship for political reasons in the future,” he said. “I do not believe that there is a need for such censorship; the Palestinian people are well-aware of what is wrong and what is bad for them.”

“Those who want to prevent their children from seeing harmful materials can disconnect from the Internet. I would like to ask are there any guarantees that this censorship will not extend to politics or freedom of speech. On what criteria is their moral decision based? The majority of the people here do not feel comfortable towards the current [Hamas] government, so there is a great deal of fear that any censorship decision would later serve some political or ideological purpose.”

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.