Digital Citizen is a monthly review of news, policy, and research on human rights and technology in the Arab World.
A coalition of more than 20 Syrian media organizations has launched a campaign demanding an end to abuses against media workers in the country, who face threats from both government entities and terrorist groups. A petition launched by freepressforsyria.com reads, “Facing retaliation if they denounce the abuses aloud, and facing extinction if they don’t, Syrian media have chosen the former. Despite intimidation and threats, Syrian media are uniting for the first time and standing up together to demand an end to the crimes committed against all journalists.” Sign the petition at Avaaz.org.
Independent journalist Omar Al-Shaar was kidnapped from his home in suburban Damascus by Syrian intelligence officials in mid-November. Al-Shaar has served as editor of the English language section of the DP-Press News website since 2011. Reports indicate that officials also seized various electronics from Al-Shaar’s home, including computers belonging to him and his wife.
Blogger and leading democracy activist Alaa Abd El Fattah was taken from his home by police last Thursday night. His wife reported that police used violent force against the couple and seized their computers and mobile phones. Alaa was detained at a rally in Cairo a few days prior to the incident, but then released on the condition that he would present himself before police on November 30. Evidently authorities could not wait this long, and thus raided his home. Many suspect his arrest comes under Egypt’s new law aimed at curbing public protest. Alaa has been jailed multiple times since 2011, and faced incitement charges under Mohammed Morsi’s government. As usual, supporters are using the #FreeAlaa hashtag to express support and follow his case on Twitter.
Cartoonist Doaa Eladl faced charges last year for a cartoon commenting on religion. While the charges were dropped following the ouster of president Mohammed Morsi, Eladl continued to receive threats for her cartoons posted on social networks. Her case is featured in IFEX’s campaign to end impunity.
Israeli forces detained approximately 25 demonstrators who had gathered at Al-Aqsa mosque in response to a call from Palestinian activists on Facebook and confiscated several of the demonstrators’ laptops and mobile phones. According to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, 20 activists were released on bail shortly thereafter, and forced to sign pledges promising they would not publish any further calls to action on Facebook that could be considered incitement by Israeli authorities.
A recent report from the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) alleges that Israeli forces are targeting journalists working to cover human rights violations. The report also included one instance of intimidation by Palestinian intelligence services: Ala Hassan Rimawi, a correspondent for the Turkish Anatolia Agency, was interrogated and asked about his salary and comments he made on Facebook.
Since 2012, the government of Kuwait has ramped up efforts to control online speech and activity. According to Human Rights Watch, Twitter user Musab Shamsah was sentenced to 5 years in prison for a tweet that commented on theological differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
The governments of Kuwait and the UK have formed a partnership in an effort to improve national security measures both on and offline in the Gulf nation. UK government experts will provide Kuwaiti security agencies with physical security, cyber security and counter terrorism training. Sources say the program will earn the UK government between $160 and $240 million per year, over seven years. This coincides with a steady increase in opposition to government actions among Kuwaiti citizens.
On a related note, Kuwaiti officials have reportedly initiated talks with Research In Motion concerning Blackberry’s double encryption technology, a feature that several Gulf nations have pointed to as potentially harmful to national security.
Journalist Ali Anouzla was freed on bail in late October, but still faces charges under Morocco’s terrorism statutes. Reporters Without Borders has pressed US Secretary of State John Kerry to intervene, stressing the need for legal reforms that would guarantee freedom of information and expression in the country. Ahead of King Mohammed VI’s visit to the United States, the organization has also called on President Obama to raise Anouzla’s case with the monarch.
On November 15, the website of the far left Moroccan opposition party Annahj Addimocrati (Democratic Way) was defaced by hackers. Mamfakinch.com reported that the attackers, who identified themselves as the “Electronic Islamic Moroccan Unio,” referenced “February 20 traitors,” alluding to the 2011 protest movement in Morocco that called for radical democratic reforms in the country, following the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.
The Ministry of Interior issued new regulations in an effort to improve tracking mechanisms for prepaid SIM cards owned by foreigners in the country. When selling to foreigners, mobile retailers now must send a copy of each customer’s contract and proof of identity to the mobile service provider, in order for the customer to obtain a SIM card. The regulations also require mobile shops to obtain and store the personal information of new SIM card owners, including the retailer contract and identification document. Shops are obligated to protect the privacy of the customers’ personal data.
The Telecom Regulatory Commission attributed this step to the increasing number of non-Jordanians in the country, many of whom are Syrian refugees or migrant workers. The change is meant to help curb the use of mobile phones in ways that might disrupt social, economic or security-related issues.
Activist Waleed Al-Shehhi has been sentenced to two years in prison and fined 500,000 dirhams for tweeting about the trial of 94 dissidents (the “UAE 94”) that occurred during the first half of the year. Shehhi was arrested on May 11 under articles 28 and 29 of Federal Legal Decree No. 5/2012, part of the cybercrime law adopted in 2012 that bans the use of information technology for activities that “endanger national security” or “defame the government.” Shehhi’s case follows that of Abdullah Al-Hadidi, who was sentenced earlier this year to 10 months in prison for tweeting about the UAE 94, and released in early November.
A trial of 30 Muslim Brotherhood activists commenced in early November, with 20 Egyptian citizens and 10 Emiratis charged with running a branch of the Brotherhood in Abu Dhabi. Two of those facing trial are Emirati human rights lawyers Mohammed al-Mansoori and Mohammed al-Roken, both of whom stand accused of communicating with “international organizations including Human Rights Watch,” and with foreign embassies. According to the court judgement, investigators confronted al-Roken through a Whatsapp text message asking why a prominent Kuwaiti Islamic scholar had been banned from entering the UAE.
Blogger Naji Fateel, co-founder of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, was sentenced in September to 15 years in prison for “the establishment of a group for the purpose of disabling the constitution,” under Article 6 of Bahrain’s Terrorism Act, a sentence widely condemned by international human rights groups. While Fateel was allowed an appeal, Bahrain’s Ministry of Human Rights and Social Development has refused entry to the country for international observers. In response, IFEX—along with the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Front Line Defenders, Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders—has issued the following statement:
“The co-signed organisations denounce this obstacle to observing the trial, which manifestly aims to hinder their human rights activities and impedes Naji Fateel’s right to a fair trial. They further call upon the Bahraini authorities to guarantee in all circumstances the right to freedom of movement to both local and international human rights defenders in Bahrain as enshrined by Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as the 1998 United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
We collectively and strongly call on the Government of Bahrain to meet its international obligations and grant immediate and unconditional access to Bahrain for international human rights observers and journalists.
Our organisations also call upon the Government of Bahrain to put an end to the judicial harassment against Naji Fateel, and to release him immediately and unconditionally as his detention is arbitrary since it only aims at sanctioning his human rights activities.”
Tunisia will soon have a new so-called investigative telecommunications agency, the primary mandate of which will be to lead investigations of “ICT-related” crimes. Established by a decree issued in early November, the agency (known by its French acronym, ATT) has triggered grave concern among human rights advocates, who fear it could be the start of a new era of censorship and surveillance in the country. Local activists have organized a “Stop #A2T” campaign, urging the government to hold public hearings about the agency’s structure and legal obligations. Cyber activist and Global Voices community member Slim Amamou said the news evoked renewed fears of “Ammar 404,” a commonly used term for online censorship (referring to the 404 Not Found error) during the Ben Ali era. Amamou told Tunisia Live, “Ammar 404 is coming back. People who have worked on surveillance before are the same but it’s under a different cover, a new administration.”
Supporters of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah protested in the streets of Baalbek and Beirut in response to a sketch aired on Lebanese satellite channel LBC International. The sketch, which aired on the satirical show Basmat Watan, featured an actor dressed as Nasrallah answering questions about Hezbollah’s military strategy and the extent to which the group has (allegedly) engaged in Syria. Protesters gathered in front of the Baalbek Serail, burned tires and blocked streets in downtown Beirut.
The sketch also stemmed a robust debate on social media, as supporters of Nasrallah exchanged views with supporters of the director, Charbel Khalil, and proponents of free speech. Nasrallah’s defenders called for a boycott of LBC International until the station apologized, while some went as far to call for the director’s death. Others defended Khalil and LBC International, calling his actions brave and criticizing the impulse to stifle free expression to avoid offending people. Both Khalil and the director of LBC International have declared they will not apologize, citing the right of the media to “impersonate and satirize whomever it [wanted].”
The Internet Society (ISOC)—an international, non-profit organization that provides leadership in Internet related standards, education, and policy—has opened its very first chapter in Yemen. Writing for our partner 7iber.com, Walid Al-Saqaf, the chair of ISOC Yemen, describes the need for such an organization:
“With so many With so many problems facing Yemen, one of the questions posed at the event was ‘Why now?’ hinting at the many difficulties that Yemen currently faces. Indeed, there are severe water shortages, power outages have become the norm, and many Yemenis don’t dare leave their homes after midnight in fear of armed gangs. With these challenges in mind, why should Yemen invest time, energy, and money on the Internet?
As the chair of ISOC-Yemen, I find that this doubt is an opportunity to bring attention to important aspects of Internet use that are often overlooked. With Internet penetration at 15%, Yemen is ranked the second lowest country in the world. Yet, with 3.7 million users, Yemen has one of the leading positions in the region, giving it an edge over Jordan, Lebanon, and several Gulf countries. If Internet penetration continues to grow, it would allow the Internet to have a greater role in creating change and fostering ideas that can ultimately help lift people from poverty.”
An International Press Institute report indicates that while media freedom has increased markedly since the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, attacks on journalists by militias and other third parties have increased.
Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Labor is implementing an aggressive crackdown on Ethiopian migrants working in the country without permits. Last week, after violent clashes in Riyadh that left at least three Ethiopians dead, over 20,000 migrants surrendered to Saudi authorities. Demonstrations also have taken place outside the Saudi embassy in Addis Ababa and led to arrests of over 100 protesters. On Twitter, activists have used the #SomeoneTellSaudiArabia hashtag to denounce the Gulf Kingdom’s ill treatment of Ethiopians.
According to a new study by the Global Web Index, Saudi Arabia has more Twitter users per capita than any other country on earth.
On Internet governance blog IG MENA, Iraqi blogger Ahmed Hamdi al-Janabi writes that when it comes to online freedoms, the country has moved from “fascism” (pre-2003) to “extreme right-wing policies” under the current government. Content controls remain a problem, as does a lack of personal privacy and data protection legislation.
In an editorial for Foreign Policy’s Transitions blog, Egyptian writer Mohamed El-Dahshan described the scene at Arab IGF, where discussions were heavily circumscribed at the behest of government officials and state security was plentiful. He writes:
“During the conference, the overbearing security presence made many people uncomfortable. Algerian officials attempted to control discussions by planting people in the audience who were tasked with making comments that followed conspicuously similar arguments. (“A state should monitor its citizens because it protects them the way that parents do their children.”) This feeble strategy quickly became obvious and repetitive.”
Around the region:
- Index on Censorship is accepting nominations for their annual Freedom of Expression Awards.
- PEN American Center has issued a report demonstrating the chilling effects of surveillance on writers; several writers reported self-censoring when writing about the Middle East.
- Author Christopher Schroeder, whose book “Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East,” looks at the startup scene in the region, has participated in an interview about entrepreneurship in the Arab world.
- Several organizations participated in the Day to End Impunity. Read posts from MADA, EFF, and IFEX.
From our partners:
- Want to know more about the zones for Freedom of Speech in Jordan? Check out 7iber’s visualizations on the Legislative Limits of Freedom of Speech, and Activists in State Security Court.
- EFF and Access have both published analyses of the recent UN resolution on privacy.
- SMEX has launched a new learning platform, NetHawwal.
- “Internet Security: Enhancing Information Exchange Safeguards,” an international workshop, will be held in Nabeul, Tunisia from December 9-13.
- The fourth Arabloggers meeting is set to take place from January 20-23 in Amman, Jordan.