HUSSAN, West Bank – Mahmoud Abbas' government in the West Bank is getting tougher with critics, interrogating, prosecuting and even jailing several journalists and bloggers in recent months for allegedly "defaming" the Western-backed Palestinian leader.
Rights activists say the legal hassles are meant to silence dissent and that the campaign is intensifying despite promises to the contrary by Abbas. Targets of the crackdown include supporters of Abbas' political rival — the Islamic militant Hamas — and political independents who have written about alleged nepotism and abuse of power in Abbas' Palestinian Authority.
Abbas' aides insist the Palestinian leader opposes any curb on expression. They blame overzealous prosecutors and security officials, but government critics say Abbas could easily halt the clampdown.
"It's a good cop, bad cop routine. The bad cops are the security services, and the good cop is the benevolent president," said Diana Buttu, a former Palestinian Authority insider. They want to send a chilling message, she said, "and it works."
Abbas' foreign backers, who view him as key to delivering any future peace deal with Israel and maintaining quiet in the West Bank, have said little in public about the issue. Instead, during a visit to the West Bank in late March, President Barack Obama showered Abbas and his security forces with praise for their efforts to prevent militant attacks on Israel.
The new tactic of taking journalists and bloggers to court has invited speculation about timing and motive.
Some say Abbas and his inner circle are lashing out at critics because they feel increasingly vulnerable politically. Others suggest the 78-year-old Abbas is either an old-school Arab politician not used to criticism or an out-of-touch leader getting bad advice.
"It's a weak authority and that's why it's doing this," said Shahwan Jabareen, who heads the human rights group Al-Haq. "They fear the criticism is growing — that they will lose the (Palestinian) authority — and they are trying to keep it by acting like this."
Such insecurities are rooted in the political split of 2007, when Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from Abbas.
Since then, Hamas has been going after sympathizers of Abbas' Fatah movement in Gaza, while Abbas' security forces have tried to dismantle the Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank to prevent a similar takeover there.
Reconciliation efforts have failed, and both sides are entrenched in their respective territories.
The split has prevented new elections, meaning Abbas has already overstayed his term as president by four years, weakening his claim to lead. His troubles are compounded by a cash crisis in his foreign aid-dependent government and lack of progress toward his main objective of negotiating terms of a Palestinian state with Israel.
There have been waves of crackdowns on political rivals, particularly Hamas, since the Palestinian Authority was established two decades ago, as part of interim peace deals with Israel.
However, Palestinian journalists say they are increasingly being targeted.
"I think it is getting worse, although we are getting very rosy promises" from the president's office, said Nabhan Khraishi, a spokesman for the Palestinian Journalists' Syndicate, a union with hundreds of members.
Ahead of Obama's March 21 meeting with Abbas, 18 Palestinian journalists were told that they would not be allowed to enter the president's comment to cover the event. Veteran reporters were among those denied accreditation apparently for being perceived as politically hostile to the Palestinian Authority.
Khraishi said that in talks with the journalists' union, political advisers and security officials blamed each other for banning an unprecedented number of journalists from covering Obama.
Tayeb Abdel Rahim, an Abbas adviser who dealt with the issue, did not return phone messages Sunday.
Two recent court rulings have drawn more attention to the clampdown on free speech.
On Thursday, an appeals court in the West Bank upheld a one-year prison term for Mamdooh Hamamreh for "defaming" Abbas. Hamamreh allegedly posted a photo montage on his Facebook page in September 2010 that showed Abbas next to that of a TV villain. A caption read: "They're alike in all ways." The villain in the TV drama collaborated with French colonial rule in Syria.
Hamamreh, a Hamas activist in his college years, denies having posted the photos. He said he spent 53 days in interrogation, missing the birth of his son and was banned from seeing his lawyer for the first 20 days.
After his release on bail, his trial and an appeal dragged on for more than two years. Abbas pardoned him hours after the appeals court decision Thursday, and Hamamreh was released later that day.
Nimer Hamad, an Abbas adviser, said the Palestinian leader hadn't pushed for Hamamreh to be prosecuted. "This young man did not deserve such a sentence," Hamad said. "The freedom and right of expression is guaranteed to all people and the president is keen on protecting freedom of expression."
Hamamreh said he believes the main point was to deter him and others from speaking out, and that he will stay clear of any potential trouble in his work.
"I now censor myself regarding anything I say," the 29-year-old said Saturday, surrounded by well-wishers at his family home in the village of Hussan, near Bethlehem. "It's the one thing they (the authorities) succeeded in doing, which is intimidation."
On the same day as Hamamreh's verdict, another court in the northern town of Salfit sentenced a blogger, Anas Ismail, to six months for "liking" three Facebook posts critical of the Ministry of Telecommunications and the minister himself.
Ismail, 30, said he was jailed for 17 days of interrogation in February and convicted and sentenced Thursday for "insulting a minister." The judge allowed him to appeal immediately, meaning he is staying out of prison for now.
He later posted on his Facebook page: "For a 'tag,' you get one year. For a 'like,' you get six months, for a 'share' you get a suspended sentence. A comment invites the biggest disaster."
A Palestinian advocacy group, MADA, said it counted 238 violations of the rights of Palestinian journalists last year, including detentions, travel bans and the closing of media outlets. MADA said that of those, 70 percent, or 164, were committed by Israel and the rest in equal measure by the two rival Palestinian governments.
Last year, 12 journalists were detained by Palestinian security forces, up from five in 2011, while 13 were summoned for questioning, the group said. Overall, there was a drop in Palestinian and a rise in Israeli violations, the group said.
Jihad Harb, an independent Palestinian commentator, said dragging journalists to court for defaming the president and the government is a relatively new tactic.
Harb himself was summoned to the prosecutor's office in Ramallah in November, three months after writing about he claimed was nepotism in filling senior public service positions. Harb said he is still waiting to hear how the case against him, on possible defamation charges, will proceed.
"The biggest loser is the president, Mahmoud Abbas, and his image in the world," said Harb.
Another journalist, Yousef Shayeb, said he was jailed for interrogation for eight days, after writing in a Jordanian newspaper last year about alleged abuse of power in the PLO embassy in Paris. He said he faces a civil suit by the Palestinian foreign minister and two top embassy officials who have dismissed Shayeb's allegations as baseless.
Buttu, a former legal adviser in the Palestinian Authority, said it's unclear to what extent Abbas is involved in the clampdown or is being pushed by those around him.
"Part of it is that they fear they have lost their grip on Palestinian society," she said.