Hours after the latest ceasefire in the Gaza Strip came into effect, a number of Palestinian journalists in the coastal enclave – including Al Jazeera chief correspondent Wael al-Dahdouh and journalist Hisham Zaqqout – discovered they lacked access to WhatsApp messaging – a crucial tool used to communicate with sources, editors and the world beyond the blocked band.
According to the Associated Press, 17 journalists in Gaza confirmed that their WhatsApp accounts had been blocked since Friday. As of midday on Monday, only four journalists – working for Al Jazeera – confirmed that their accounts had been restored.
The incident marks the latest ruling on WhatsApp owner Facebook Inc, which has left Palestinian users or their allies puzzled as to why they were targeted by the company, or if they had in fact been targeted by the censorship.
Twelve of the 17 journalists contacted by the AP said they were part of a WhatsApp group that disseminates information related to Hamas military operations.
“Shocking and unjustified”
Al-Dahdouh said his access to WhatsApp was blocked at dawn on Friday before being restored on Monday. He said that journalists register with Hamas groups only to obtain information necessary for journalistic work.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, the correspondent said he was surprised when he received a message from WhatsApp stating that his account has been completely and indefinitely banned, coinciding with the declaration of a ceasefire at 2 a.m. ( 23:00 GMT) last Friday.
Zaqqout, al-Dahdouh’s colleague, called the ban “shocking and unwarranted” because no violations of content policies and terms of service were committed.
Zaqqout also said he had received several warnings from Facebook that his own account – authenticated with the blue tick – might be deleted, claiming it violated the terms of service.
WhatsApp accounts were banned for three days before being reactivated again on Monday, after the chain’s management in Qatar contacted the WhatsApp administration in the United States.
“Groups and conversations were back, but the content was wiped out, like joining a new group or starting a new conversation,” al-Dahdouh said. “I lost information, images, numbers, messages and communications.”
Al Jazeera said its journalists in Gaza had had their WhatsApp accounts blocked by the host without prior notification.
“Al Jazeera would like to strongly emphasize that its journalists will continue to use their WhatsApp accounts and other apps for newsgathering and personal communication,” the news network told the AP. “At no time have Al Jazeera journalists used their accounts for any purpose other than personal or professional.”
The office of the Qatar-based news network in Gaza was destroyed during the war by Israeli airstrikes which destroyed the residential and office tower, which also housed the offices of the Associated Press.
Press freedom groups accused the Israeli military, which claimed the building housed Hamas military intelligence, of trying to censor coverage of the airstrike. The Israeli army telephoned a warning, giving the occupants of the building an hour to evacuate.
Facebook and its photo and video-sharing platform Instagram came under fire this month for deleting posts and deleting user accounts posting protests against efforts to forcibly evict Palestinians from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem. This prompted an open letter signed by 30 organizations demanding to know why the posts had been cut.
The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, or 7amleh, said in a report this month that Facebook granted 81% of requests made by Israel’s Cyber Unit to remove Palestinian content last year. He found that in 2020, Twitter suspended dozens of Palestinian user accounts based on information from Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs.
Sada Social, an organization based in the occupied West Bank that tracks alleged violations of Palestinian content on social media, said it was collecting information on the number of Gaza-based journalists affected by WhatsApp’s latest decision.
It is unclear whether the journalists were targeted for following Hamas announcements on WhatsApp.
The group is considered a “terrorist” organization by Israel and the United States, where WhatsApp owner Facebook is based.
Hassan Eslayeh, a freelance journalist in Gaza whose WhatsApp account is blocked, said he believes his account may have been targeted because he was part of a group called Hamas Media.
“It affected my job and my income because I lost conversations with sources and people,” Eslayeh said.
It’s not the first time he’s had trouble with social media apps. Eslayeh’s Facebook page has been deleted 17 times, and her Twitter and Instagram accounts have been repeatedly blocked and deleted.
He attributed these “hostile measures” against Palestinian journalists and activists to Israeli pressure, and said that the administrations of these sites and apps are complicit in the Israeli occupation and seek to “suffocate” journalists and harass them.
History of blocking journalists
A WhatsApp spokesperson said the company is banning accounts to comply with its policies “to prevent harm as well as applicable law.” The company said it has been in contact with the media over the past week about its practices. “We will reinstate journalists if any have been affected,” the company said.
Among those affected by the blocking of WhatsApp are two journalists from Agence France-Presse. The Paris-based international news service told the AP it was working with WhatsApp to figure out what the problem is and restore their accounts.
The 11-day war has 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, have been killed in Israel.
This is not the first time journalists have been suddenly banned from WhatsApp. In 2019, a number of journalists in Gaza had their accounts blocked without explanation. Accounts of people working with international media have been restored after contacting the company.
The New York Times also reported that about 100 WhatsApp groups were used by far-right Jewish Israelis in the country to commit violence against Palestinian citizens of Israel.
WhatsApp said it does not have access to the content of people’s personal chats, but bans accounts when information is reported that it says indicates a user may be involved in imminent harm. The company said it is also responding to “valid legal requests from law enforcement regarding the limited information we have.”