Gaza journalists blocked from WhatsApp after Hamas chats

WhatsApp is a crucial tool used by journalists to communicate with sources, editors and the world beyond the blockaded strip

The AI-enabled service allows residents to book a vaccine appointment quickly and efficiently via WhatsApp. Reuters
The AI-enabled service allows residents to book a vaccine appointment quickly and efficiently via WhatsApp. Reuters

A few hours after the latest ceasefire took effect in the Gaza Strip, some Palestinian journalists in the coastal enclave found they were blocked from accessing WhatsApp Messenger.

The messaging service is a crucial tool to communicate with sources, editors and the world beyond the blockaded strip.

Seventeen journalists in Gaza confirmed their WhatsApp accounts had been blocked since Friday.

By midday on Monday only four journalists, working for Al Jazeera, confirmed their accounts had been restored.

The incident marks the latest puzzling move by WhatsApp’s owner Facebook, which has left Palestinian users or their allies bewildered as to why they have been targeted by the company, or if they had been singled out for censorship at all.

Twelve of 17 journalists contacted said they had been part of a WhatsApp group that disseminates information related to Hamas military operations.

Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, is regarded as a terrorist organisation by Israel and the US, where Facebook has its headquarters.

It is unclear if the journalists were cut because they’d been following the group’s announcements on WhatsApp.

Hamas runs Gaza’s Health Ministry, which has a WhatsApp group followed by more than 80 people, many of them journalists. That group has not been blocked.

Hassan Slaieh, a freelance journalist in Gaza whose WhatsApp account is blocked, said he thought his account might have been hit because he was on a group called Hamas Media.

“This has affected my work and my income because I lost conversations with sources and people,” Mr Slaieh said.

Al Jazeera’s chief correspondent in Gaza, Wael Al Dahdouh, said his access to WhatsApp was blocked at about dawn on Friday before it was reinstated on Monday.

He said journalists subscribed to Hamas groups only to get information needed to do their work.

A WhatsApp representative said the company bans accounts to comply with its policies “to prevent harm as well as applicable law".

The company said it has been in touch with media outlets over the last week about its practices.

“We will reinstate journalists if any were impacted,” it said.

Al Jazeera sought information about its four journalists in Gaza affected by the block.

It said it was told by Facebook that the company had blocked the numbers of groups based out of Gaza, and that the mobile numbers of Al Jazeera journalists were among those blocked.

Among those affected by the WhatsApp block are two AFP journalists.

The French international news service said 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 248 Palestinians, including 66 children and 39 women, killed in the fighting. Israel says 12 people died in Israel, including two children.

It is not the first time journalists have been suddenly barred from WhatsApp.

In 2019, some in Gaza had their accounts blocked without explanation. The accounts of those working with international media organisations were restored after contacting the company.

Facebook and its photo and video-sharing platform Instagram were criticised this month for removing posts and deleting accounts about protests against efforts to evict Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.

It prompted an open letter signed by 30 organisations demanding to know why the posts had been removed.

The New York Times reported that about 100 WhatsApp groups were used by Jewish extremists in Israel to commit violence against Palestinian citizens.

WhatsApp said it did not have access to the contents of people’s personal chats, but it banned accounts when information was reported that it believed indicated a user might be involved in causing imminent harm.

The company said it responded to “valid legal requests from law enforcement for the limited information available to us".

The Arab Centre for the Advancement of Social Media, or 7amleh, said in a report published this month that Facebook accepted 81 per cent of requests made by Israel’s Cyber Unit to remove Palestinian content last year.

It found that in 2020, Twitter suspended dozens of accounts of Palestinian users based on information from the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs.

Mr Al Dahdouh said although his account was restored, his past history of chats and messages was erased.

“The groups and conversations were back but content is erased, as if you are joining a new group or starting a new conversation,” he said.

“I have lost information, images, numbers, messages and communications.”

Al Jazeera said its journalists in Gaza had their WhatsApp accounts blocked by the host without prior notification.

“Al Jazeera would like to strongly emphasise that its journalists will continue to use their WhatsApp accounts and other applications for newsgathering purposes and personal communication,” it said.

“At no time, have Al Jazeera journalists used their accounts for any means other than for personal or professional use.”

The Qatar-based news network’s office in Gaza was destroyed during the war by Israeli air strikes that razed the high-rise residential and office tower, which also housed the AP offices.

Press freedom groups accused the military, which claimed the building housed Hamas military intelligence, of trying to censor coverage of Israel’s offensive.

The Israeli military called in a warning, giving occupants of the building an hour to leave.

Sada Social, a West Bank centre tracking breaches against Palestinian content on social media, said it was collecting information on the number of journalists affected by the latest WhatsApp decision.

More on the Israel-Palestinian conflict

Inside the decades-long struggle for the right to live in Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah

Gaza bombardment may have spurred coronavirus cases, doctors say

Blinken heads to Israel and Palestine to 'solidify' Gaza ceasefire

Updated: May 25, 2021 09:20 AM

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