Journalists pay price for Hamas' anti-porn crusade



 
Officially, Hamas is only trying to shield the population of Gaza from Internet porn. But the immediate effect of the filtering, which started in May, has been to deprive Gaza's journalists and public of unfettered access to the news.
 
By OLFAT HADDAD
 
hamas ban porno.jpg
Hamas is watching what Gazans get up to on the Internet. R.R.

GAZA CITY, July 23, 2008 (MENASSAT) – Officially, pornography is the excuse.

According to the Minister of Communication in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, Yousif Al Munassa, the reason why Hamas has started monitoring the Internet is to shield the population of Gaza from uncouth websites.

But the monitoring is interfering with journalistic activities in Gaza as well.

Palestinian journalists in the Strip are up in arms about the whole affair as the filtering has slowed and even halted Internet traffic entirely during busy news days.

The director of Reuters' Gaza office, Nidal Al Mughrabi, told MENASSAT, "The decision has had a huge impact on our work, since we are an international agency known for our up-to-date news coverage, and we are in competition with other international agencies."

He added, "This decision forced us to use alternatives. We have linked the Internet network to microwaves to speed up the connection, but this process is very costly, and not all agencies can afford it."

News agencies also face difficulties receiving reports from their correspondents in the field, who have had to resort to phoning in their stories on days when the Internet crashes completely.

Mughrabi also pointed to Internet users at home who often rely on the Internet for their news. (The Gaza Strip has an estimated 25,000 Internet subscribers.)

Protecting society

An agreement to filter the Palestinian Internet was signed last May between the Communications Ministry of the resigned cabinet (*) and the Palestinian Communication Company, the only ADSL Internet provider in Palestine.

The resigned Communications and Technology Minister, Yousif Al Mansa, said at the time, "When we started on May 15, the decision was aimed at pornographic sites that we as a Palestinian society suffer from. We made this decision in line with previous cabinets' policies in order to protect the ethics of the society."

Nevertheless, it is the journalists who are  paying the price.

Saleh Al Masri, a journalist and editor at the Palestine Today website, told MENASSAT, "We are not against regulating the Internet, but we were highly affected in terms of download speed. Our readership too dropped by more than half.”

He added, "The ministry and the government have to consider the work of journalists and media establishment. All we want is unfettered access to news."

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Information, Muhammad Habib, has assured the media that the Ministry is working to deal with their needs and that Internet speeds have already improved since May.

But many journalists in Gaza remain skeptical about the Ministry's intentions..

Gaza-based writer Abdullah Alyan said, "Pornography is only an excuse for the filtering, the other reasons are monitoring people's use of the Internet, especially news sites and forums, to curtail the widespread online campaign against the Hamas' government and the behavior of its members in Gaza."

"What Hamas wants from monitoring the Internet is  to control its impact on public opinion," Alyan said.


(* The term "resigned" refers to the de facto Hamas government in Gaza headed by Ismail Haniyeh, who was sacked by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas following Hamas' armed takeover of Gaza last year.)