Surveillance, censorship and arrests of activists using social media in Palestine
On 26th October 2016, Israeli Forces raided the house of civil society activist Salah Khawaja and detained him without access to legal representation. Mr Khawaja is prominent member of the Stop the Wall Campaign, a leading figure in the Palestinian National Initiative (al Mubadara) and a member of the secretariat of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Reports suggest that Israeli security forces fired tear gas indiscriminately in the neighbourhood where Mr Khwaja lives to deter people from protecting him during his arrest.
A recent report by the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA), released on 20th October, provides details of a number of prosecutions of Palestinian journalists. The report indicates that excessive surveillance by Israeli authorities has had a negative impact on the freedom of expression in Palestine, citing multiple instances of preemptive arrests, interrogation and detention of Palestinians merely for using social media to express a political opinion. Israeli forces also routinely censor any posts that are viewed as having the aim of inciting resistance against the occupation of Palestine. The report comes at a time when groups are increasingly worried about the declining conditions for freedom of expression in Palestine.
On 22nd September, Facebook administrators removed the accounts of 10 managers and journalists from the Shahab Network and Quds News Network. Cumulatively, these outlets have a following of over 12 million users and cover daily news in Palestinian territories. Palestinian media rights groups complain that Facebook has taken a political stance by siding with Israeli authorities. Facebook has recently come under renewed criticism from media freedoms groups for announcing, on 12th September, a formal partnership to work with Israeli authorities to clamp down on online expression that is deemed to "incite violence".
While the 10 accounts were subsequently restored, many groups have drawn attention to concerns about collusion between government and the private sector to curtail freedom of expression. In a recent press release, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) stated:
“The removal of Palestinian content and some of Palestinians’ accounts and the reversing of the decision amid wide social media outrage and boycott campaigns, only serve the goals of the colonial and repressive regimes at the expense of the Palestinian people’s freedom”.
Many domestic and international groups are concerned about declines in the freedom of expression on social media. On 3rd October, Majed Arouri, an expert in media and human rights, stated that there has been a significant deterioration in the level of freedom of expression in the territory of the Palestinian Authority. In an article, Mr Arouri drew attention to the arrest of Osama Mansour as emblematic of the worsening conditions. Osama Mansour, a Military Liaison Officer in the Palestinian Authority, was arrested and detained on 10th September, one day after making a Facebook post criticising Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for attending the funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres.
On 15th October, a conference organised by the Palestinian Association of Development and Heritage Protection was disrupted and banned by authorities. After entering the CSO's premises in Beit Lahiya town, security forces claimed that the meeting organisers did not have a permit to hold a political meeting, and the meeting was therefore illegal. Local human rights organisation, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, noted in a press statement that the justification used by security forces contravened the Amended Palestinian Basic Law, which clearly permits citizens to hold political meetings without prior consent from authorities. Many groups have appealed to the authorities to conduct a proper investigation into the events of 15th October.