Palestinian Journalists Cut Off From WhatsApp Hours after Ceasefire

A number of Palestinian journalists working in the Gaza Strip found that their WhatsApp accounts had been blocked a few hours after the latest cease-fire took effect, the Associated Press reported.

Many journalists use the messenger application WhatsApp to communicate with sources, editors and those outside of Gaza. The Associated Pressreported they reached out to 17 journalists in Gaza whose accounts had been blocked since Friday. By Monday, only four of the accounts, which belonged to Al Jazeera journalists, had been restored.

Al Jazeera's chief correspondent in Gaza, Wael al-Dahdouh, was one of the journalists affected. He told the Associated Press his account was blocked around dawn on Friday and had only been restored on Monday.

This is not the first time journalists working in Gaza have had their WhatsApp accounts blocked without warning. In 2019, a number of journalists in Gaza had their accounts blocked, but those working for international media outlets had their accounts restored after reaching out to the company.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Al Jazeera
Masked fighters with the National Resistance Brigades (NRB), the military wing of the Democracy Front Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), walk in front of the ruins of the al-Jalaa tower which hosted the offices of the news agency Associated Press and the Aljazeera English channel, destroyed by Israeli strikes during the recent confrontations between Hamas and Israel, in Gaza City on May 23, 2021. - Gazans started piecing back their lives after a devastating conflict with Israel that killed more than 200 people and made thousands homeless in the impoverished Palestinian enclave, days after an Egypt-brokered ceasefire ended deadly Israeli air strikes and rocket fire out of it towards Israel. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

The incident marks the latest puzzling move concerning WhatsApp's owner Facebook Inc. that's left Palestinian users or their allies bewildered as to why they've been targeted by the company, or if indeed they'd been singled out for censorship at all.

Twelve of the 17 journalists contacted by the AP said they had been part of a WhatsApp group that disseminates information related to Hamas military operations. Hamas, which rules over the Gaza Strip, is viewed as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, where WhatsApp owner Facebook is headquartered.

It's unclear if the journalists were targeted because they'd been following that 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, for example, has not been blocked.

Hassan Slaieh, a freelance journalist in Gaza whose WhatsApp account is blocked, said he thinks his account might have been targeted 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," Slaieh said.

Al-Dahdouh said journalists subscribe to Hamas groups only to get information needed to do journalistic work.

A WhatsApp spokesperson 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," the company said.

Al Jazeera said that when it sought information regarding its four journalists in Gaza impacted by the blockage, they were told by Facebook that the company had blocked the numbers of groups based out of Gaza and consequently the cell phone numbers of Al Jazeera journalists were part of the groups they had blocked.

Among those affected by the WhatsApp blockage are three journalists working for a France-based media outlet, according to those contacted by The Associated Press.

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 in Israel, including two children, also died.

Facebook and its photo and video-sharing platform Instagram were criticized this month for removing posts and deleting accounts by users posting about protests against efforts to evict Palestinians from their homes in east Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. It prompted an open letter signed by 30 organizations demanding to know why the posts had been removed.

The New York Times also reported that some 100 WhatsApp groups were used by Jewish extremists in Israel for the purpose of committing violence against Palestinian citizens of Israel.

WhatsApp said it does not have access to the contents of people's personal chats, but that they ban accounts when information is reported they believe indicates a user may be involved in causing imminent harm. The company said it also responds to "valid legal requests from law enforcement for the limited information available to us."

The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, or 7amleh, said in a report published this month that Facebook accepted 81% 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.

Al-Dahdouh, the Al Jazeera correspondent, 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 emphasize that its journalists will continue to use their WhatsApp accounts and other applications for newsgathering purposes and personal communication," the news network told the AP. "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 airstrikes that took down the high-rise residential and office tower, which also housed the Associated Press' 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 telephoned a warning, giving occupants of the building one hour to evacuate.

Sada Social, a West Bank-based center tracking alleged violations against Palestinian content on social media, said it was collecting information on the number of Gaza-based journalists impacted by the latest WhatsApp decision.

Al Jazeera blocked from whatsapp
FILE - In this May 10, 2021 file photo, rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel. A number of Palestinian journalists in the Gaza Strip say they are being blocked from accessing WhatsApp messenger. Twelve of the 17 journalists contacted by the AP said they had been part of a WhatsApp group that disseminates information related to Hamas military operations. Khalil Hamra, File/AP Photo