AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
There's a fine line between what you're allowed or not allowed to post on Facebook when you live in the West Bank. Last week, two Palestinian men faced charges for Facebook posts that allegedly insulted Palestinian officials. Critics say the arrests are meant to stifle political opposition. NPR's Emily Harris has the story.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: In the waiting room of a Ramallah courthouse last week, a clerk called defendants to pick up their files - all paper - while the loudspeaker announcements blared assignments. Twenty-four-year-old Ayman Mahareeq was there to face charges based on Facebook posts.
AYMAN MAHAREEQ: (Through interpreter) One of my posts was about how Palestinian security forces act whenever Israeli forces enter the West Bank - they withdraw and hide. I criticized that harshly.
HARRIS: That was just one of his posts that caught someone's eye. Palestinian police arrested him in a coffee shop last November and imprisoned him for a month. One Palestinian law promises freedom of expression, but another bans people from insulting any official from the head of state on down. The indictment against Mahareeq cites a post in which called for an end to the Palestinian Authority Administration.
MAHAREEQ: (Through interpreter) Basically, I oppose the Palestinian Authority. It doesn't represent the Palestinian people, just the people who are part of the government. The PA has signed agreements with Israel that humiliate Palestinians, and we don't accept being insulted.
HARRIS: So neither side likes insults. Even the lawyer defending Mahareeq, Anas Barghouti, says there is no place for insults in civil society, even of leaders. For example, he is not a personal fan of Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, but he'd never call the president a donkey.
ANAS BARGHOUTI: (Through interpreter) If I say Abu Mazen is a donkey, that's not a political view. This is an insult to a human being.
HARRIS: And under Palestinian law, it's a crime. But lawyer Barghouti says that's not what's going on here. He thinks recent arrests for Facebook posts are all about politics.
BARGHOUTI: (Through interpreter) Political arrests go up and down according to two main factors. One is the relationship with Israel, the other is the relationship with Hamas.
HARRIS: The Palestinian Authority is run by the Fatah political party, which has not managed to reconcile with its more militant and Islamist rival, Hamas. Palestinian Authority officials deny they make political arrests. Compared to some Arab nations, there is more room for political debate in the West Bank. But Mahareeq is not the only Palestinian arrested for Facebook posts. Security agents arrested Mohammad Zaki, a university student, from his home last September. He says he spent five days in solitary confinement with intervals for interrogation.
MOHAMMAD ZAKI: (Through interpreter) On the first day, all the interrogations were about Facebook. The next day, the prosecutor charged me with insulting Palestinian officials. The third, fourth and fifth days focused on political activities at the university.
HARRIS: Hamas recently won a student government election at a major West Bank university. After that, students were questioned by both Palestinian and Israeli security forces. Zaki says it's all to scare students from voicing political opinions, and he has quit - at least on Facebook.
ZAKI: (Through interpreter) Before I was first arrested, I thought that I can put my opinions on Facebook, that there was freedom of expression, freedom of exchange of ideas. But after what happened to me, I decided there is no freedom of thinking. Then in May, I stopped using Facebook entirely because I was arrested again and interrogated about private chats and messages.
HARRIS: Zaki says he got a one-year sentence for insulting authorities, reduced to three months, which meant he could pay a $125 fine and go free.
Meanwhile the trial of Ayman Mahareeq, who was in court last week, was delayed until September. He has also cut back on social media posts, but says he still shows up at protests against the Palestinian Authority in person. Emily Harris, NPR News, Ramallah.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.