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WhatsApp blocks Palestinian reporters, violating digital rights

GAZA CITY (AFP): Messaging app WhatsApp has blocked the accounts of dozens of Palestinian journalists following this month’s Israeli violence against the Palestinians and resistance group Hamas, reporters said.

Shortly after a cease-fire went into effect at 2 a.m. Friday (11 p.m. GMT Thursday) ending 11 days of deadly Israeli violence, two journalists in Agence France-Presse’s (AFP) Gaza City bureau received notices from WhatsApp in Arabic informing them their accounts had been blocked.

Other journalists, in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank as well as Gaza, said their accounts had also been blocked.

A crew from Qatar-based satellite news channel Al-Jazeera said their accounts had later been restored after they lodged complaints with WhatsApp owner Facebook. The vice president of the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, Tahseen al-Astall, said “around 100 journalists” in Gaza had seen their accounts blocked.

As a necessary part of reporting on both sides of the conflict, Gazan journalists receive Hamas statements, including via WhatsApp, even though the Palestinian group has been blacklisted by the European Union and the United States, accused of belonging to “groups and entities involved in terrorist acts.”

The Arab Center for the Development of Social Media said the blocking of WhatsApp accounts was not an isolated incident. In a new report, the group, based in Israel’s third city Haifa, documented 500 cases in which Palestinian “digital rights” had been violated between May 6 and May 19.

“Content and accounts were removed, reduced and restricted, hashtags were hidden and archived content deleted,” the report said.

Some “50% of these reports were about Instagram, 35% Facebook, 11% Twitter and 1% Tik Tok.”

“Companies did not provide an explanation for the deletion or suspension in the majority of their responses to users,” the report said. “However, the reasons presented to users included hate speech, violation of community standards, requesting proof of identity, among others.”

We have seen an “escalation against digital rights of Palestinians” in recent weeks, 7amleh campaigner Mona Shtaya told AFP.

Social media remains an important tool for Palestinians in exposing the violence against them, many of whom believe traditional media coverage does not sufficiently capture the reality of the crisis.

Tensions came to a boil earlier this month over the looming expulsions of Palestinian families from their homes in the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah to make way for Israeli settlers. Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire on Gaza killed more than 250 Palestinians, including 69 children, and wounded over 1,900 people in 11 days of violence from May 10, the Gazan Health Ministry said.