Following Palestine’s signing of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), UNESCO provided important support to help Palestine meet its human rights commitments. In particular, it offered in-depth technical advice and ensured advocacy on two draft laws – one on the Right to Access Information (RTI) and the other on the Higher Media Council. In the former case, UNESCO organized, together with the Ministry of Information and the Anti-Corruption Commission which had been mandated to oversee the finalization of the law, a seminar which brought together all of the key actors involved in the drafting and promoting of the RTI Law. During this seminar, participants agreed on amendments to further align the law with international standards, and a revised draft was then submitted to the Cabinet of Ministers for consideration.
The timing of UNESCO’s efforts in this area coincided with positive developments indicating a window of opportunity regarding legal reform. These included, among others: the signing, by Palestine’s President Mahmoud Abbas of the Declaration on Media Freedom in the Arab World in August 2016 (he was the first leader of the Arab states region do so); Palestine’s bid to join the Open Government Partnership; as well as global developments such as the inclusion of “public access to information” among the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (under 16.10).
However, the absence of a functioning Palestinian Legislative Council since 2007, following the Fatah/Hamas conflict, has stalled the process, as any law would need to be adopted through the issuance of a presidential decree, normally reserved for “the most urgent issues that cannot be delayed”.
Moreover, in this context, a controversial Cybercrimes Law was approved in fast-track and signed into law as a presidential decree on 24 June 2017. It is reported to have been used to detain journalists and human rights defenders, and to block websites. It a letter to the Government of Palestine, Rapporteur on promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Mr David Kaye, expressed strong concerns regarding the impact of the law on freedom of expression online. A number of civil society organizations also voiced concerns. As a result, specific sections of the law were frozen for six months, and a committee was allowed to draft revisions to the law, which are now awaiting review by the Cabinet.