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Palestinian Facebook news platform suspends operations after ban on page

Maydan al-Quds news network had relied on Facebook for its audience, but a ban has made their work almost impossible, says director
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Palestinian activists in Hebron hold banners as they protest against what they consider censorship of Palestinian content by Facebook, 24 November 2021 (AFP)
By in
Jerusalem

A Palestinian news page with over a million and a half followers on Facebook announced on Monday that it has shut down its operations in occupied Jerusalem after the social media giant banned its account.

The Maydan al-Quds news network had been covering stories from Jerusalem for more than a year and a half.

According to its director, Bilal Nour, Facebook closed the page on 21 November last year, the same day as the killing of Jerusalemite man Fadi Abu Shkheidem by Israeli forces after he carried out a stabbing attack near the Chain Gate - one of the gates to al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City.

Nour told Al Jazeera that his network was "totally impartial" in its reporting on the incident.

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An alternate page launched as backup had over 90,000 followers before it was also closed without prior warning, Nour added, explaining that the decision to terminate the page's operations was due to its reliance on Facebook as the main source of news in Palestine.

The news network would face insurmountable difficulties in carrying out its work without access to the popular social media platform, according to the director of Maydan al-Quds.

Facebook also restricted the access of the outlet's editors to Instagram and their ability to launch livestreams on the platform after accounts were disabled then reactivated.

Middle East Eye has contacted Facebook for comment but had not received a response by the time of writing.

Meta, the California-based multinational conglomerate that owns Facebook, has often been accused of censoring the experiences of Palestinians and their narrative both on Facebook and Instagram.

In November, Palestinian activists and journalists launched a campaign called "Facebook Censors Jerusalem" to raise awareness about Meta’s alleged efforts to censor Palestinian content on its flagship social media platform.

The bulk of what they say were incidents of censorship are said to have occurred in May 2021, after threatened expulsions in Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, the storming by Israeli soldiers of al-Aqsa Mosque, an 11-day offensive in Gaza, and intercommunal violence in Palestinian-majority cities in Israel.

The campaign has created the "FBCensorsJerusalem" hashtag to support Palestinians who have been restricted on social media platforms. It is also denouncing what it calls Meta’s double standards policy when it comes to Palestinian and Israeli content.

The social media platform’s algorithms have been removing posts that contain words like "Hamas" or "martyr" without taking into consideration their contextual meaning, according to Eyad Rifai, a researcher at Sada Social, a non-profit focusing on the digital rights of Palestinians. 

'Deep sadness'

Maydan al-Quds first launched its page on social media in May 2020. As well as regular field reports, the network also produced a number of programs and documented violations taking place within the city, publishing them as part of a monthly digest.

In a statement to its followers on Sunday, the network thanked them saying “we have shared a journey with the people of Jerusalem, one filled with hope and pain, with stories of steadfastness and achievements.

"We shed light on the Judaisation project, on the massacres and expulsions [of 1948], and we raised the voice of Jerusalem and al-Aqsa high.”

The network had created an alternate page several months prior to the closure of the main page out of fear of being cut off from its audience following repeated warnings from Facebook.

But Facebook targeted the alternative page as well and closed it a week after shutting down the main page.

“The alternative page was closed without any prior warning, even though its Facebook Page Quality was rated 'green', having received no notifications or restrictions," the alternate page’s admin said in a Whatsapp message to journalists. 

"So we contacted the technical support staff at Facebook by phone, and their answer was that the page doesn’t appear in their search records.”

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Seven technical support employees at Facebook contacted by the page editors said that they could not provide any assistance and that the decision to remove the page seems to have been made by the company’s senior management. 

According to Nour, the Instagram livestream of the network was disabled three times, and its page was shut down for 48 hours before it was returned with restrictions on access.

Many followers of the network expressed their regret at its decision to suspend its work. 

Radwan Amr, a researcher on Jerusalem affairs and the al-Aqsa Mosque, wrote that he is "extremely saddened and shocked by this news".

"All of Jerusalem is with you wherever you are, or wherever you choose to go,” he wrote. 

Jerusalem-based reporters that worked for the network also expressed their anger over its closure.

One journalist who previously worked for the network, Baraah Abu Rumouz, wrote that “we conveyed the fears and concerns of everyday Jerusalemites, their achievements, their victories, their voices, and their perseverance".

“With Maydan al-Quds, I knew that any information I sent on Jerusalem would be in good hands…I am in deep sadness for the Jerusalemite street’s loss of a news platform of this sort… goodbye, my favorite news network.”