A few hours after the latest cease-fire took effect in the Gaza Strip, a number of Palestinian journalists in the coastal enclave found they were blocked from accessing WhatsApp messenger — a crucial tool used to communicate with sources, editors and the world beyond the blockaded strip.
The Associated Press reached out to 17 journalists in Gaza who confirmed their WhatsApp accounts had been blocked since Friday. By midday Monday, only four journalists — working for Al Jazeera — confirmed their accounts had been restored.
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 Jazeera's chief correspondent in Gaza, Wael al-Dahdouh, said his access to WhatsApp was blocked around dawn on Friday before it was reinstated Monday. He 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.
It's not the first time journalists have been suddenly barred from WhatsApp. In 2019, a number of journalists in Gaza had their accounts blocked without explanation. The accounts of those working with international media organizations were restored after contacting the company.
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 organisations 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.