Journalist Mamdouh Hamamreh served only one day of the year-long sentence imposed
on him for “insulting” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on
Fearing a backlash and denying personal involvement in the
case, Abbas decided to magnanimously “pardon” Hamamreh. But Abbas needn’t have
feared. He is the darling of free world opinion – regardless of the incitement
he promotes and the freedoms he stifles. His excesses never resonate in overseas
His term of office expired years ago, but he is still widely
regarded as a democratically elected leader. Nonetheless, in Abbas’s
pseudo-democracy all that it took to convict Hamamreh for “spreading seeds of
hate” and “publishing false information” was an image shared on Facebook that
likened Abbas to a Syrian TV villain.
The fact that Hamamreh did not
actually do hard time is immaterial. An intimidating message was dispatched to
members of the press and Internet users. They are being carefully
It is an oft-sent message. A day after Hamamreh’s sentencing,
Salfit-resident Anas Ismail was convicted of “libel and slander”
clicked “Like” on a Facebook status critical of a PA official. He was sentenced
to six months.
Last February, Anas Awwad was sentenced in Nablus to a
year’s imprisonment for posting a photo depicting Abbas as Real Madrid soccer
player. He too was magnanimously pardoned by Abbas.
This is hardly new
and hardly typical only of Abbas’s tenure. When his predecessor Yasser Arafat
ruled the roost things were not different. Journalists were hounded for printing
uncomplimentary photos of Arafat or for quoting him below the fold on the front
page. This was considered insulting and insults are counted as
Nor are such concepts unique to the PA. They are rampant
throughout the Arab realm – even in post-Arab Spring days. Thus Egypt’s
prosecutor-general has ordered the arrest of the country’s best-known satirist,
Bassam Youssef, for poking fun at President Mohamed Morsi. He was, meanwhile,
freed on bail.
Youssef hosts a weekly prime-time offering, El-Bernameg
(“The Show”), aired each Friday on a private satellite channel.
outstanding comedic specialty is mimicking Morsi’s speech and gestures. Besides
being hounded for his alleged disrespect for Morsi, Youssef is also being
accused of “insulting Islam.” This is nothing to be scoffed at in a country
where the Muslim Brotherhood holds sway.
The aforementioned cases are all
petty, vindictive and geared more than all else to warn the citizenry and deter
more serious dissenters. They all point to the abysmal absence of free
expression in this region, with the marked exception much-maligned
Despite the outward trappings of democracy, this state of affairs
belies the impression that our neighbors are fast internalizing the values of
civil liberties. The freedoms to “Like,” upload, share, opine, report and
publish are intrinsic components of the most elementary freedom of expression.
No wonder it is enshrined in the First Amendment to the US
The arbitrary manner in which anyone can be accused of
injuring a leader’s honor – and the very fact that this at all constitutes a
felony – is hardly conducive to fostering the public climate that would lead the
populace to welcome and sustain democracy. Defending rights is not a simple or
self-evident process even in the most seasoned and stable of democracies. It
becomes all the more crucial in societies where private militias and corrosive
cronyism either terrorize or buy off whoever does not run with the
Therefore, the perceived generosity of spirit displayed by Abbas
when he deigned to pardon his “insulters” in no way mitigates the travesty of
trampling on basic freedoms.
When all is said and done, what stood
between persecuted Facebook users and prolonged terms behind bars was the
caprice or cynical calculation of one chief.
The fact that Abbas posed as
the good guy doesn’t diminish the fact that in his latifundia it is a severely
punishable crime to offend him.
Abbas has not faced his electorate for a
long time and elections do not anyhow on their own suffice for democracy.
Without undeviating devotion to fundamental freedoms, the façade of democracy is
nothing but hollow hype.