GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — On April 26, the Ministry of Interior in Gaza launched a crackdown against what it described as “propagandists.” During this unprecedented move, 17 Palestinian journalists and activists were arrested for several hours before being released after pledging not to publish news about internal Palestinian affairs before verifying it with official sources.
The crackdown came in the wake of escalating disputes between President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas, and only a day after the Gaza Interior Ministry threatened to take decisive action against social media propagandists, saying, “Some activists deliberately spread rumors on social media in order to stir up confusion among Palestinian citizens.”
On April 25, Hamas-affiliated al-Majd website, which mainly focuses on security issues, reported that the Hamas security services unveiled a dangerous plan thought up by security and intelligence agencies — without specifying which — to flood Gaza with rumors in order to create a state of confusion and chaos and disturb security in the Strip.
In the days leading up to the crackdown, rumors had been spreading in Gaza, mainly about murders and thefts spread by fake accounts, which proved to be invalid hours after they were published.
Spokesman for the Interior Ministry in Gaza Eyad al-Bozom told Al-Monitor that the crackdown came in light of the events that took place in Gaza following the assassination of Hamas leader Mazen Faqha on March 24, such as the arrest of dozens of individuals accused of feeding Israeli security intelligence. Meanwhile, pressure is increasing in Gaza and the siege is being tightened, while Palestinian parties are attempting to exploit the harsh living conditions in Gaza with the purpose of affecting the citizens’ psyche by spreading rumors and false news, Bozom added.
He said, “We have done our duty and we have taken legal action against some propagandists, especially those spreading rumors on social media. In return, we have introduced a set of guidelines for citizens, warning them about such rumors.”
Bozom said that the Interior Ministry arrested 17 activists and journalists who promoted rumors on social media. After holding them for several hours, they signed pledges not to publish rumors and verify their information before publishing anything. He noted that his ministry will continue with its mission and refer the violators to the public prosecution for a more severe punishment — i.e., trial and imprisonment.
Palestinian journalist Mohammed Zaher, who was arrested on charges of promoting rumors, told Al-Monitor, “I was arrested for sharing news on my personal Facebook account about an internal issue in the area where I live in central Gaza," noting that he made sure the information about the issue — which he preferred not to give any specifics about — was accurate.
Zaher explained that police officers came to his house on April 28 to arrest him before he surrendered. He was released on April 29, but during the 22 hours of his arrest, he was questioned three times about the issue he posted about. He was then summoned on May 1 to sign a pledge not to publish any news on internal affairs before verifying it with official sources.
Nasr Abu Foul, the head of the Palestinian Network for Media and director of Nida al-Watan website, told Al-Monitor, “I was arrested on April 25 [a day before the crackdown was launched] by the security services in Gaza on charges of spreading rumors and false news and inciting the street against the government, but I denied all these charges.”
He added, “I was arrested and questioned for several hours and released on April 26 after signing a pledge to respect the law and order.” Abu Foul further noted that the security services confiscated his personal computer and blocked his Facebook account, stressing that he received good treatment during the investigation.
Tahseen al-Astal, the deputy head of the Palestinian Journalists Union, told Al-Monitor that his union rejected the arrest campaign carried out by the security services in Gaza against a number of journalists, pointing out that they contacted the Bar Association and human rights organizations in Gaza to help with their release.
He explained that the union’s position is consistent in rejecting the arrest of any journalist, noting that Article 19 of the Palestinian Basic Law guarantees the freedom of opinion and expression. Astal also stressed that the security services’ actions violate all local and international conventions and laws concerning freedom of opinion.
A number of journalism students in Palestinian universities in Gaza, and specifically al-Quds Open University, led a five-day online campaign on April 11 with the hashtag #SpareUsYourAnalysis, in order to raise awareness and put an end to rumors and analyses that affect the community and serve Israel.
Professor of journalism at al-Aqsa University in Gaza Khaled al-Halabi told Al-Monitor that rumors affect the psychological state of Palestinian citizens and called on journalists and activists to explain and verify any information before publishing it instead of only running after scoops as many Palestinian media outlets do.
It should be noted that all journalists arrested could not provide accurate sources for the information they shared and immediately deleted the rumors they shared from their accounts, and they all signed the pledges in order to be released.
Halabi urged Palestinian journalists to verify the information before publishing it, especially when it comes to a certain number of vaguely addressed issues that plague the Palestinian arena as a result of the internal division on the one hand and the conflict with Israel on the other.
He stressed that social media made it difficult to control the volume of information available to citizens, noting that journalists are easy to control in terms of preventing them from publishing inaccurate information, but fake propagandist accounts on social media cannot be tamed.
The Journalists Union and human rights organizations have not reported any arrests since the release of the 17 journalists and activists, which proves that the crackdown has succeeded in reducing the rumors that have recently spread in the Gaza Strip, especially those related to security issues.