Several Palestinian civil society non-governmental organizations (NGOs), human rights and media organizations have expressed concern over the Palestinian Authority government’s intention to pass a law that restricts the freedom of accessing information.
The organizations warned that the new law would stifle free speech and prevent journalists from reporting on issues that reflect negatively on the PA leadership, such as financial corruption and human rights violations.
In the absence of a Palestinian parliament, Palestinian laws are enacted by PA President Mahmoud Abbas through “presidential decrees.” The parliament, known as the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), has been inoperative since Hamas’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007.
Mahmoud Abbas's attempts to tighten grip on Ramallah
In 2018, Abbas dissolved the PLC as part of an effort to tighten his grip on PA institutions, including the legislative and judicial branches.
Some of Abbas’s decrees have been criticized by many Palestinians, who accuse the 87-year-old leader of turning the PA into an autocratic regime. They noted that he has exploited the dispute between his ruling Fatah faction and Hamas to issue more than 400 decrees.
Last year, Abbas drew sharp criticism and protests for issuing a decree to form a Supreme Council of Judicial Bodies and Authorities that he would head.
Responding to the new law, which is also expected to be enacted through a “presidential decree,” the organizations said they were following with great concern the PA government’s move to secretly ratify a bill to regulate the right of accessing information.
No one - other than cabinet ministers – was allowed to review the content of the law, they claimed.
Palestinian NGOs meet to discuss controversial bill
Last week, representatives of the organizations held a meeting at the Wattan Media Network in Ramallah, where they announced that they managed to obtain a copy of the controversial bill.
After the meeting, 38 organizations issued a statement in which they said the proposed bill violates the basic principles of the right to access information.
They pointed out that the PA government had previously agreed to the formation of an independent commission to follow up on its commitment to the people’s right to access public information.
According to the statement, the new law ignores the idea of the commission and proposes instead the establishment of an “Information Department” that would report directly to the PA government.
“The provisions of the proposed bill contravene the basic principle of disclosing public information,” the organizations said. “This bill violates international standards because it includes a number of ‘exceptions’ to reject requests for accessing information. This is similar to what is seen in some non-democratic Arab regimes, which adopted Access to Information laws but were criticized by the international and local communities due to the ‘exceptions.’ These ‘exceptions’ are manipulated by governments to withhold information that should not be hidden from the public.”
They further warned that the proposed law contradicts the PA government’s previous promises not to impose restrictions on the freedom to access information.
“Such bills should prevent the withholding of information and the spread of false and misleading news that threatens civil peace, along with promoting the freedom of opinion and expression and freedom of the media by enabling the latter to access the real sources of information and deal with them professionally,” the organizations added, calling on the PA government to hold consultations with human rights activists, media personalities and legal experts before passing the law.
In 2017, Abbas secretly passed by “presidential decree” another controversial law on cybercrime, allowing the PA security forces to prosecute and imprison political activists, journalists and dissidents. Palestinian human rights organizations, legal experts and journalists said the cybercrime legislation jeopardizes freedom of expression and access to information.