Mahmoud Abbas
Mahmoud Abbas Reuters

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on Wednesday condemned a decision by a Palestinian Authority court to block access to a total of 51 online news sources that the PA regards as threats.

“This unacceptable measure seems designed to punish media critical of the government,” RSF said in a statement.

The list of 51 online media that are to be blocked was published by a court in Ramallah on October 21, said RSF. A total of 59 names has been released, including those whose both websites and Facebook pages are targeted.

The prosecutor’s office said they were guilty of “attacking and denigrating the Palestinian Authority’s symbols” and “publishing content that threatens national security and civilian safety.”

The targets include the Gaza-based Shehab News Agency, which has 7.5 million Facebook followers, and the Quds Network, with 6.6 million followers, according to the SRF statement.

Also targeted are Facebook pages with hundreds of thousands of followers such as Ultra Palestine, Arab 48, PalAbroad and Al-Majd. Some of these news sources have no website of their own, just a Facebook presence.

“Blocking websites is clearly a violation of the right to news and information,” said Sabrina Bennoui, the head of RSF’s Middle East desk. “In so doing, the Palestinian Authority confirms its refusal to accept media pluralism and its desire to eliminate all opposition by making it invisible to the public.”

The Independent Commission for Human Rights and the Union of Journalists have decided to challenge this decision in court. The verdict is expected for Thursday.

This is not the first time that the PA has cracked down on social media and news sites. In 2017, PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree allowing his government to jail anyone on charges of harming "national unity" or the "social fabric".

Following the decree, the PA government blocked 30 websites, most of which were affiliated with Abbas' two main rivals, his longtime political rival Mohammed Dahlan and the Hamas terrorist group which controls Gaza.

In 2012, Abbas also censored media outlets affiliated with his rivals. He subsequently ordered the censorship to be lifted after coming under fire for it.

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