Hamas shut down media bureaus over Egypt coverage

Gaza’s de-facto Hamas government closed the office of Al Arabiya, Palestinian network Ma’an news and the local production company Lens on Thursday.

Ma’an reported the incident as having received a closure order from the Attorney General delivered directly to their offices. Al Arabiya published a report from their Gaza correspondent, stating that employees had been prevented from entering their offices by the Hamas authorities, who told them that would be arrested if they entered at any point.

Lens was shut down after Hamas took objection to their providing of professional services to the i24 news, an Israeli network based on the Al Jazeera model that broadcasts in Arabic, English and French. Hamas recently instigated a ban on journalists working with Israeli media, so it would seem this is an effort to keep the ban and its associated scare tactics on-going, even though Lens may be providing the only view inside Gaza that Israel permits its citizens to see.

The targeting of Al Arabiya and Ma’an however is related to their coverage of the situation in Egypt, specifically after both published reports saying 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,” according to Ma’an. In a piece for the New York Times, Fares Akram writes that the “reports attributed the information to Israeli news media reports and unidentified sources, saying that six Brotherhood leaders were directing pro-Morsi activities in Egypt from a hotel room in Gaza City.”

The office of Ismail Jaber, the attorney general in question, stated that they ordered the closure of the bureaus after receiving complains that Al Arabiya and Ma’an had deliberately “spread rumours and fabricated news”, and in so doing had “become complicit with Egyptian media outlets in incitement against the Strip”, thereby threatening “the social peace and…the Palestinian people and their resistance.” Ma’an editor in chief Nasser Lahham has since state they intend to lodge complaints with the Palestinian Journalists Union and the International Federation of Journalists.

Ma’an may have gone out of their way to object to being labelled liars, but it is perhaps beside the point whether the report is true or not. News outlets, especially those with reputations similar to that of Al Arabiya, may have to contend with such accusations from time to time, but it is perhaps more valuable that they be free to respond rather than face closure. Furthermore, the claim by Hamas that the moral health of the Palestinian people is dependent on such censorship will likely jarr with the mostly Palestinian staff of both bureaus. Much like the response by some journalists to the ban on working with Israeli media, there is the possibility that journalists will continue to work for both outlets in secret, without bylines, a danger forced on them by the conditions of both extreme poverty and authoritarianism that have become normality in Gaza.

Furthermore, the choice to close the Al Arabiya offices reflects the shifting politics of the region, especially when compared to their rival Gulf-based news service Al Jazeera. The Saudi Arabian Al Arabiya has often been critical of the Muslim Brotherhood and their Hamas offshoot, a reflection of the foreign policy of the House of Saud which chose to fund Egypt’s ruling military council but not the Muslim Brotherhood. Writing for Al Monitor, Madawi Al-Rasheed explains that “Saudi Arabia had always had a troubled relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood version of Islamism, its organizational capacity and its increasingly accepted message that combined Islam with an eagerness to engage with the democratic process.” Qatari channel Al Jazeera, whose offices remained untouched during the recent shutdowns in Gaza is however facing a lighter version of these issues elsewhere. Qatar’s alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood and their bankrolling of the Hamas government with a recent pledge of 400 million USD has lead to accusations that Al Jazeera provided little more than a mouthpiece for Doha’s policies during recent events in Egypt, leading to the resignation of 22 members of staff in Egypt and occasional raids by Egyptian security forces.

Reacting to the closure of Ma’an’s Gaza bureau, English-language editor George Hale told Index on Censorship that “needless to say, this is a disturbing and outrageous development.” While such crackdowns may have more to do with regional links- both politically and financially- than moral judgements, the problem remains that Gaza is increasingly as in need of reporting as it is starved of free expression.