Palestinian Groups Say COVID Emergency Law Being Used by Authorities to Curb Rights

By Dalia Hatuqa

Countries worldwide are facing an unprecedented challenge in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.

The measures being put in place, while timely and often necessary, have had a real impact on democratic practices and processes — including those in the digital sphere, rights groups have told Digital Privacy News.

The Palestinian territories are no different.

As the pandemic rages throughout the West Bank and Gaza —54, 060 confirmed cases, 561 deaths as of Sunday — digital-rights groups told Digital Privacy News of an increase in violations of human rights online by the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a presidential decree on March 5 “declaring a state of emergency in all Palestinian territories to confront the coronavirus and prevent its spread,” said Nadim Nashif, executive director of the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media (7amleh).

“Since then,” Nashif said, “civil-society institutions have documented violations of freedom of opinion and expression and digital rights.”

Abbas’ decree is now the State of Emergency Law, which since has been extended in 30-day increments. The law imposes fines of $2,000 to $7,000 and a year in prison for violators.

Nashif’s organization has argued that the law employs vague and broad terminology — “national security,” “public order” and “public morals” — and provides no legal safeguards.

It specifically targets digital rights and privacy, the group said.

“Health fears are being used to legitimize technologies of surveillance and less privacy for people.”

Nadim Nashif, Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media.

Prime Minister’s Comments

But Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh told reporters in March that the fundamental rights of citizens would be respected under all circumstances.

“Declaring the state of emergency, and all accompanying measures, is to fight the virus — and the state of emergency will not be used for any other matters outside its declared goals,” he said.

The law, however, bars the spreading of “news related to the state of emergency that (is) not based on an official source.”

This includes news conveyed through social media.

Nashif’s group said social media was popular in the Palestinian territories, where movement is restricted by Israeli authorities — along with audio, print and broadcast media.

Further, the PA law specifies that “whoever commits any crime against public order, civil peace and stability during the state of emergency shall be punished with the maximum penalty prescribed by the law.”

The Arab Center argued the provision “can be used extensively to restrict and criminalize digital content.”

Nashif told Digital Privacy News: “There have been more restrictions on freedom of expression online during the time of the pandemic.

“Health fears are being used to legitimize technologies of surveillance and less privacy for people.

The state of emergency will not be used for any other matters outside its declared goals.”

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh.

“The main violations are the use of emergency laws and jailing people who are criticizing the authority, and how to deal with fake news,” Nashif continued.

“Some people who published unauthorized or unchecked news were questioned and threatened.”

Alleged Rights Violations

Since the state of emergency was declared, rights groups have documented violations of expression and digital rights.

The Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedom in Ramallah documented 31 violations in August, the most recent figures available. Fifteen were carried out by the PA, with the rest by Israel.

On March 5, Palestinian security forces arrested former Parliament member Hossam Khadr, in the Balata refugee camp, east of Nablus in the West Bank, according to Amnesty International.

Khadr has said he was told that his arrest stemmed from Facebook posts he had written criticizing Abbas’ handling of a recent strike by doctors and nurses who sought raises and benefits.

Security forces also arrested Amid Masoud, a family doctor, from his clinic at the Huwara checkpoint, south of Nablus, that same day — also regarding Facebook posts attacking the Palestinian president for the same reason as Khadr, according to the Arab Center.

The emergency law was used to detain the men in both cases, according to both the Arab Center and Amnesty International.

On April 29, the Geneva-based Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor published a statement calling for the governor of Ramallah, Laila Ghannam, to release Ahmed Al Khawaja.

He was arrested after commenting on Ghannam’s Facebook page, expressing his surprise at the closure of mosques due to the coronavirus pandemic, while allowing Easter celebrations to take place.

Security forces held Al Khawaja for 15 days on charges of “stirring sectarianism.” 

‘Arbitrary Detention’

The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, the Geneva-based nonprofit, condemned the use of the state of emergency to confront the COVID pandemic and to justify what it called “arbitrary detention of activists and social workers, in a clear violation of human rights agreements which Palestine ratified as well as the local laws in the Palestinian territories.

“While the Euro-Med Monitor affirms the necessity for citizens to comply with precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus COVID 19, it warns that the detention of Al-Khawaja is against freedom of opinion and expression,” the group said in April.

The Arab Center’s Nashif told Digital Privacy News: “Criminalizing and punishing posts, statements or news on social media related to the state of emergency, by all means, provides more space for restrictions on freedom of opinion, privacy and digital-rights in emergency legislations.

“Any post can be criminalized, as long as it is not premised on an official source,” he added, “regardless of whether it is true or false.” 

The Arab Center said it had documented cases where Palestinians’ digital privacy had been violated.

Leaked Data Alleged

Lists of names and the health data of citizens who have contracted COVID — issued by the Palestinian Ministry of Health — were leaked and circulated on social media —  and the PA allegedly has done very little to protect or compensate those whose digital privacy was violated, the group said.

Accordingly, 7amleh has called on the authority to “issue a law that guarantees the protection of personal and health data, in accordance with international standards and the (constitution), which ensures the protection of the rights to privacy and to access information.”

The organization also urged the PA to hold accountable all those who violated the personal and health data of citizens and to compensate those affected.

Dalia Hatuqa is a writer based in the West Bank.

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