Ramallah Palestinian Authority blocks website reporting on corruption

18 November 2008

081118-ei-dunya-al-watan.jpg

The headline and illustration of an article published by Donia al-Watan that called the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority a banana republic.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah has blocked access to a popular news website because of the site’s reporting on widespread corruption among the entourage of PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

For several days, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been unable to view the website Donia al-Watan (http://www.alwatanvoice.com) as access has been blocked through the PA-controlled telecom company. Readers outside Palestine and a few inside the country using proxies are still able to access the site.

The Electronic Intifada confirmed that several users attempting to access the website in Ramallah and other parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank could not do so and instead saw a message in English stating “We are sorry, the site was blocked based on attorney General instructions [sic].”

Donia al-Watan operates from the Gaza Strip which is under a tight Israeli siege that has led to severe shortages of food and long periods of darkness as fuel for the territory’s only power plant runs dry. Israel has imposed a news blackout on the Gaza Strip, preventing journalists from entering the territory, hence indigenous Palestinian media are one of the few ways for the outside world to know what is happening in the besieged territory that is home to 1.5 million persons.

Abbas issued the order to block the site without any due process, legal notice or opportunity for defense, a report published on the site stated. “We are surprised at these violations emanating from the president of the PA who appears to have forgotten that he was one of the biggest critics of the policies of the late Abu Ammar [Yasser Arafat]. But the late former leader Arafat never signed off on such orders and did not shut down publications,” said the website’s editor Abdallah al-Issa, according to the report.

Al-Issa told The Electronic Intifada in a telephone interview from Gaza City that his website had published dozens of stories about corruption since it was founded in 2003. When Arafat was in office, the site would receive complaints, he said, but no such action had ever been taken against them. Al-Issa criticized Arafat for failing to stem corruption, “but at least we could write about it.”

In an article entitled “The Ramallah Banana Republic,” al-Issa severely criticized the Abbas-led Authority for acting illegally in blocking his site, and called for solidarity from local and foreign journalists and international human rights organizations to pressure Abbas to reverse the decision to censor the website.

Al-Issa said that with electricity out, often for eighteen hours each day and the severe deprivation in Gaza, his work as a journalist was difficult enough. “Defending the Palestinian people in Gaza against this siege means nothing to Abbas,” al-Issa said, “what matters to him is defending those who are corrupt.”

Donia al-Watan is politically independent, according to al-Issa, although he describes himself as a former member of Fatah. Abbas is the leader of the fractious Fatah party. In June 2007, Hamas drove US-backed militias nominally loyal to Abbas and Fatah out of the Gaza Strip. Following those events, Abbas dismissed the democratically-elected Hamas-led national unity government and appointed an unelected government that is supported and funded by the United States, the European Union and several Arab states.

Since its 1994 founding under the Oslo Accords, the PA’s credibility has been hit by allegations of rampant corruption. In early 2006, the PA Attorney-General Ahmad al-Meghanni – the same official who ordered the censorship of Donia al-Watan – publicly reported that he was investigating no fewer than 52 cases of official corruption. These totaled hundreds of millions of dollars and involved numerous senior officials of the PA and affiliated companies. Earlier this year, Rawhi Fattouh, a close ally of Abbas and former speaker of the Palestinian legislative council was caught smuggling thousands of cell phones into the Israeli-occupied West Bank from Jordan. However, none of these cases have ever resulted in convictions or the return of stolen public funds and foreign aid money to the Palestinian people.

The blocking of Donia al-Watan appears to be the first time the PA has attempted to censor a website and may foreshadow even more extreme efforts to crack down on critics of a regime Palestinians increasingly view as little more than an arm of the Israeli occupation.