Facebook ‘blocks accounts’ of Palestinian journalists

Account suspensions come on heels of agreement between social media giant and Israel to team up against “incitement”.

Facebook resistance
Facebook executives met Israeli officials earlier this month to discuss 'incitement' on social media [File: Issa Abdel Qadi]

Editors from two Palestinian news publications based in the occupied West Bank say their Facebook accounts were suspended last week and that no reason was provided, alleging their pages may have been censored because of a recent agreement between the US social media giant and the Israeli government aimed at tackling “incitement”.

Last week, four editors from the Shehab News Agency, which has more than 6.3 million likes on Facebook, and three executives from the Quds News Network, with about 5.1 million likes, reported that they could not access their personal accounts.

Both agencies cover daily news in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Nisreen al-Khatib, a translator and journalist at the Quds News Network, told Al Jazeera that the publication believes the account suspensions were triggered by an agreement between Facebook and Israel earlier this month, in which they agreed to jointly combat what Israeli claims is “incitement” by Palestinians on social media. 

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Al-Khatib said that even Quds News Network’s non-political vertical that focuses on “entertainment” and “international news” had been suspended, although access was later restored.

“[Sharek-Quds News Agency] does not publish anything that violates Facebook standards or that could annoy governments. But still, we are targeted,” she said.

Al-Khatib said that the news agency asked Facebook for an explanation on why the accounts had been suspended “for no reason”. 

Facebook replied on Saturday with an apology, saying the suspension had been “accidental”.

The three suspended accounts of Quds News Newtork journalists were unblocked over the weekend by the networking site, she said.

Remah Mubarak, manager of Shehab News Agency, said one of four managers’ accounts that had been suspended “with no warning” by the California-based tech company had still not been reactivated as of late Sunday.  

“One manager’s account is still suspended,” he told Al Jazeera, adding the other three accounts were unblocked on Saturday.

Al Jazeera contacted Facebook for comment, but it did not respond by the time of publication.

Facebook said in a statement on Monday the pages were mistakenly removed after being flagged, and it restored them as soon as it learned of the error.

“Our team processes millions of reports each week, and we sometimes get things wrong. We’re very sorry about this mistake.”

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Mubarak, of Shehab News, said that the “agency covers news in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and also inside Israel”.

“Maybe they don’t want this covered, especially in the West Bank, where executions have happened in recent days. Maybe that effects them on social media and they want to stop these pages to hide the proof,” he said.

Al-Khatib said the incident isn’t the first time Palestinian news sites have had issues with Facebook. 

“Many other Palestinian network agencies have been shut down by Facebook for no reason actually. There are at least five Palestinian pages that have been shut down. Gaza 24 was [one of them],” she said.

‘Incitement’ crackdown

The Israeli military said on Sunday it has indicted more than 145 Palestinians so far this year for incitement over social media.

Sunday’s announcement comes amid an Israeli campaign to put an end to online postings it says have fuelled a near continuous wave of violence over the past year. Palestinians say the violence is the result of nearly 50 years of Israeli military occupation. 

Since October, at least 230 Palestinians, 34 Israelis, two Americans, one Jordanian, an Eritrean and a Sudanese have been killed, according to a count by the AFP news agency.

Shortly after news broke earlier this month of the agreement between the Israeli government and Facebook, Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said Tel Aviv had submitted 158 requests to the social media giant over the previous four months asking it to remove content it deemed “incitement”. She said Facebook had granted 95 percent of the requests. 

Over the summer, an Israeli legal advocacy group – connected to the Israeli army and intelligence agencies -filed a $1bn lawsuit against Facebook claiming the company was violating the US Anti-Terrorism Act by providing services that assist groups in “recruiting, radicalising and instructing terrorists”. 

But rights groups and monitors argue that activists and journalists, not “terrorists”, are often the target of incitement charges. 

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Source: Al Jazeera