Hours after the most recent ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, several Palestinian journalists in the coastal enclave-including Al Jazeera chief correspondent Wael al-Dahdouh and reporter Hisham Zaqqout- found that they were blocked from accessing WhatsApp messenger-an important tool used to communicate with sources, editors and the world beyond the blockaded Strip.
According to the Associated Press, 17 journalists in Gaza have confirmed that their WhatsApp accounts have been blocked since Friday. By Monday afternoon, only four reporters – working for Al Jazeera – had confirmed that their accounts had been recovered.
The incident marks the latest move by WhatsApp owner Facebook Inc that has confused Palestinian users or their allies as to why the company targeted them, or whether they were selected for censorship.
Twelve of the 17 reporters contacted by the AP said they had been part of a WhatsApp group spreading information related to the Hamas military operation.
‘Shocking and unreasonable’
Al-Dahdouh said his access to WhatsApp was blocked around dawn on Friday before it was restored on Monday. He said journalists subscribe to Hamas groups to get only the information needed to do the job of journalism.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, the writer said he was surprised when he received a message from WhatsApp saying that his account was banned completely and forever, simultaneously with the declaration of a ceasefire at 2pm (2300 GMT) on Friday.
WhatsApp accounts were banned for three days before being reactivated on Monday, after the Qatari channel management spoke with the WhatsApp administration in the United States.
“Groups and conversations are back, but the problem is removed, as if you join a new group or start a new conversation,” al-Dahdouh said. “I lost information, images, numbers, messages and communication.”
Al Jazeera reported that its reporters in Gaza had their WhatsApp accounts blocked by the host without being notified.
“Al Jazeera wants to give strong incentive that its reporters will continue to use their WhatsApp accounts and other applications for news gathering and personal communication purposes,” the news network told the AP. “At any time, do Al Jazeera reporters use their accounts for any means other than for personal or professional use.”
The Qatar-based news network’s office in Gaza was damaged during the war by Israeli airstrikes that destroyed the high-rise residence and office tower, which also housed The Associated Press’s offices.
Freedom of the press groups have accused the Israeli military, which claimed the building housed Hamas military intelligence, of trying to censor the scope of the air offensive. The Israeli military telephoned a warning, giving occupants of the building an hour to evacuate.
Facebook and the photography-sharing Instagram photo and video were criticized this month for deleting posts and deleting the accounts of users who posted about protests against efforts to force Palestinians to leave in their houses in the occupied area of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. It prompted an open letter signed by 30 organizations asking to know why the posts were taken.
The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, or 7amleh, said in a report published this month that Facebook accepted 81 percent of requests made by Israel’s Cyber Unit to eliminate Palestinian content last year. . It was found that in 2020, Twitter suspended several accounts of Palestinian users based on information from the Israeli ministry on strategic activities.
Sada Social, a occupied West Bank -based organization that tracks alleged anti -Palestinian violations on social media, said it was collecting information on the number of Gaza -based journalists affected in the latest WhatsApp decision.
It is unclear if the journalists were targeted because they followed Hamas announcements on WhatsApp.
The group is viewed as a “terrorist” organization in Israel and the United States, on which WhatsApp owner Facebook is based.
Hassan Eslayeh, a freelance journalist in Gaza whose WhatsApp account was blocked, said he thinks his account could be targeted because he belongs to a group called Hamas Media.
“It affected my job and my income because I lost communication with backgrounds and people,” Eslayeh said.
This isn’t the first time he’s had issues with social media applications. Eslayeh’s Facebook page has been deleted 17 times, and her Twitter and Instagram accounts have been regularly blocked and deleted.
He described the “hostile measures” against Palestinian journalists and activists as oppressing Israel, and said that the administrations of its websites and applications were in cahoots with the Israeli occupation and acted to “burden” journalists and harass them.
History of blocking journalists
A WhatsApp spokesperson said the company banned the accounts in order to follow its policies “to prevent harm as well as applicable law”. The company said they had already contacted media outlets last week about its actions. “We will return reporters if anything is affected,” the company said.
Among those affected by the WhatsApp blockage were two Agence France-Presse reporters. The Paris -based international news service told the AP it was working with WhatsApp to understand what the problem was and restore their accounts.
The 11-day war caused widespread destruction across Gaza with 253 Palestinians, including 66 children and 39 women, killed in the fighting. At least 12 people, including two children, were killed in Israel.
This is not the first time that reporters have been suddenly banned from WhatsApp. In 2019, several journalists in Gaza blocked their accounts without explanation. The accounts of those working with international media organizations were restored after contacting the company.
The New York Times also reported that about 100 WhatsApp groups were used by right -wing Israelis within the country for the purpose of committing violence against Palestinian citizens in Israel.
WhatsApp says it does not access the contents of people’s personal chats, but it bans accounts if it reports information that it believes was displayed by a user who may be involved in the cause. almost damaged. The company said it was also responding to “valid legal requests from law enforcement for limited information available to us”.