Protesting what they called Hamas' "ongoing assault on journalists", Palestinian journalists held a sit-in near Ramallah last week to protest against the Hamas government's recent closure of two media offices in Gaza.
A week earlier, Hamas authorities in Gaza shut down two media offices used by Al Arabiya satellite channel and Maan News Agency, which they accused of "disseminating false news and publishing fabricated reports" about Hamas and its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
On July 25, police officers arrived at the two media offices in Al-Rimal neighbourhood, west of Gaza City, and ordered their workers to leave immediately, saying they had an order issued by the attorney general to "temporarily" close the offices and seize their contents.
"Police detectives came to our office showing us an order issued by the attorney general to temporarily close our office, but they refused to give us a copy of the order," said Al Arabiya's Gaza office director, Islam Abd al-Kareem.
Hamas government spokesman Ehab el-Ghussein said the government had previously "warned against going too far in fabricating news, spreading rumours, and publishing entirely baseless reports about the government, which served to disseminate hatred and incitement against the Palestinian people in Gaza".
We're not biased, and in all cases this is Gaza's office, not Egypt's. If they tried to send a political message by closing our office in Gaza, it would be absolutely ludicrous.
But, he added, "the two media offices ignored the government's calls and kept on with their unethical and unprofessional behaviour and policies, as they deliberately tried to implicate the government as interfering in Egypt's ongoing internal conflict".
Hamas, which has been in control in Gaza since June 2007 and is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been repeatedly accused of interfering in internal Egyptian affairs.
Al Jazeera recently reported that deposed Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi has been arrested on a number of charges, the most significant of which is his alleged conspiracy with Hamas to carry out "anti-state acts" including attacks on police stations, soldiers and prisons.
Ghussein emphasised that the government's policy is to not interfere in other states' internal affairs. The media outlets, according to Ghussein, "falsely and deliberately" portrayed the Hamas government as interfering in Egypt, thereby provoking resentment against it.
'Crackdown on journalists'
Maan's editor-in-chief Nasser Al-Lahham criticised the decision to close the two offices, saying the move represents "a continuation of Hamas government's crackdown on journalists and press freedoms".
Since coming to power, Hamas has restricted press freedoms in the Gaza Strip. These include an ongoing ban on importing three local newspapers printed in the West Bank, and a ban on Palestinian journalists from working, giving interviews or cooperating with Israeli press and television. Hamas has repeatedly stated it will not lift the ban on the three allegedly pro-Fatah newspapers until the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah lifts a similar ban it has enforced on pro-Hamas newspapers in the West Bank.
Lahham said Hamas' media office has "consistently" interfered with Maan's work over the past years, especially since the July toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. "Some Hamas officials in Gaza have apparently gone mad and started behaving irrationally after the recent events ended Morsi's and the Muslim Brotherhood's rule in Egypt," he commented.
Similarly, Al Arabiya's correspondent dismissed the government's claims of fabricating stories about the government and its relationship with Egypt as "unfounded".
False news report
On July 24, Maan News Agency published a news report citing an unnamed Israeli source and stating that "six Muslim Brotherhood officials had smuggled themselves into Gaza to plan an uprising against the military in Cairo, after their Egyptian president was deposed".
When this later proved to be spurious, Maan responded that the story was originally published by an Israeli news site - which it has not named - and that Maan merely translated the report from Hebrew to Arabic, as per its policy.
Although the government filed a complaint against Maan and Al Arabiya more than a month before this incident, Salama Marouf, the head of Hamas' media office, says the news report "was the straw that broke the camel's back".
Marouf explained that the closure order was issued based on "multiple pieces of damning evidence which the government supplied the attorney general with demonstrating unprofessional and unethical behaviour on their [the media outlets'] part.
"We found out their translation fabricated the original news report ... And they could have visited the Beach Hotel where they claim the Brotherhood officials were staying, and which is a few minutes away from their office, to factually confirm the news before they ran it on their site," he added.
Government officials Ghussein and Marouf failed to provide specific complaints about Al Arabiya's coverage, though they vaguely stated that the majority of Palestinians in Gaza were "offended" by the Saudi-owned channel's coverage.
Abd al-Kareem said he found it "ludicrous" to justify the closure of Al Arabiya's office by claiming it provides biased anti-Muslim Brotherhood coverage of the ongoing events in Egypt.
"We're not biased, and in all cases this is Gaza's office, not Egypt's. If they tried to send a political message by closing our office in Gaza, it would be absolutely ludicrous. And it would be telling that the order has come from a supposedly independent and unaffiliated party, i.e. the attorney general," he said.
Human rights groups in Gaza have condemned the office closures, saying the decision constituted a violation of press freedoms and freedom of expression, as well as of Palestinian basic law and international human rights standards.
Samir Zaqout of the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights asserted that "the closure procedures violate Palestinian Basic Amended Law of 2005, which denies any form of monitoring, ban or warning or the imposition of restrictions over the media unless by a judicial decision in conformity".