Digital Citizen brings you the latest human rights and technology news from the Arab World. This edition looks anti-terror measures that could threaten free expression in Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia, among other states.
In Tunisia, as military and security forces continue to hunt for armed groups in different regions of the country, the Interior Ministry has reiterated its calls for the filtering of “terrorist” web pages.
In an interview with Tunisia’s Achourouk newspaper, Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jedou said [ar] that his ministry had previously called on the Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies to filter content “inciting to terrorism,” but received “no response.” Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the ICT ministry said that such content can only be taken down following a judicial order.
On March 10, the ICT ministry announced the appointment of Jamel Zenkri as head of the country’s new electronic communications surveillance entity: the Technical Telecommunications Agency (ATT). The creation of the ATT last November sparked massive surveillance concerns among privacy advocates.
Pardoned for posting Prophet Muhammad cartoons on Facebook, Jabeur Mejri was released on March 4. Mejri has been in prison since March 2012 over the publication of content deemed “liable to cause harm to public order and morality,” “insulting and disrupting the lives of others through publication communication networks” and “assaulting [to] good morals.” Mejri, who was originally sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, was released early.
Meanwhile, a military court of appeals confirmed the initial verdict in the case of blogger Hakim Ghanmi. Last year, a primary court fined Ghanmi fined 240 TND for “accusing without proof a public official” over the posting of a blog post critical of the staff of a military hospital. More serious charges of “insulting others through public communication networks” and “undermining the reputation of the army” were dismissed.
Blogger Abdelghani Aloui, who was detained for posting on Facebook cartoons of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, remains in prison. Aloui was initially arrested on September 25, 2013 and charged on October 10 with “insulting the president” and “glorifying terrorism.” Despite calls for his release, he has been held without trial for nearly six months.
As the interim military government continues to crack down on activists and media alike, free speech is suffering. New draft anti-terrorism legislation has sparked concerns about censorship; the proposed law, which was leaked to the public, could allow for social networking sites to be banned if deemed to be“endangering public order and would potentially allow for greater surveillance.
Alaa Abd El Fattah was released from prison on bail on March 23. The renowned Egyptian blogger spent 115 days behind bars without trial after being violently beaten and arrested from his Cairo home on November 28, 2013. He stands accused of organising a protest with the ‘No to Military Trial for Civilians’ group without prior permission, a violation of Egypt’s “anti-protest” law. Police violently dispersed the November 26 protest and detained 24 demonstrators for two weeks. Only Abd El Fattah and Ahmed Abdel Rahman — a bystander who intervened in an attempt to protect female protesters — were imprisoned long-term. Both men were released early this week. They will stand trial April 6.
Other overt attempts to silence opposition have taken place over the past few weeks: In Minya, two brothers were arrested for creating a Facebook page dubbed “Samalout Revolution”. According to police, the page published personal information of police officers, and was found to incite violence and promote the overthrow of the government. In a separate case, seven members of the Muslim Brotherhood were detained, allegedly for sharing information on weapons manufacturing on Facebook.
New findings from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab show that numerous governments—including Egypt’s—have employed Italian company Hacking Team’s Remote Control System (RCS) surveillance technology. Earlier this year, research by the same group showed US company Blue Coat’s deep packet inspection technology being used on public networks in Cairo.
In better news, a group of Egyptian activists began a campaign calling for better Internet service and lower prices for Internet access in Egypt. The campaign, which uses the hashtags #InternetRevolution and #ثورة_الانترنت, started in response to rising prices from telecoms.
The controversial “Innocence of Muslims” [ar] video that sparked outrage and frustration in countries throughout the Muslim world is no longer accessible on YouTube or any other site affiliated with the movie. Last week, the “Freedoms Committee” of the Jordan Bar Association has finally won its case against Google, the owner of YouTube, for not blocking “Innocence of Muslims,” charging the company with blasphemy and insulting prophets.
A new anti-terrorism law based on Saudi Arabia’s recently enacted anti-terrorism law prohibits “joining the extremist religious and intellectual groups and movements that are classified terrorists locally or regionally, or supporting them or expressing sympathy with them by any means, including providing moral or material support or promoting them or advocating them through writing or otherwise.”
Crackdowns on social media have increased in recent years. In late 2012, Abdul Aziz Mohamed El Baz—an Egyptian resident of Kuwait—was accused by the Electronics and Cyber Crime Combating Department of being an “atheist and an infidel” and charged with contempt of religion and attempting to spread atheism through his blog. He served a sentence of hard labor, paid a $270 fine, and was deported back to Egypt in February 2014.
In February, a man who posted an image of himself kissing a statue of the Virgin Mary to Facebook was arrested. Ali Itawi had posted a comment alongside the image suggesting that the Virgin Mary was “no longer a virgin.” The image was originally posted to the account in 2011. President Michel Suleiman has called for “appropriate measures” to be taken against Itawi.
In February, web developer Jean Assy was sentenced to two months in prison on defamation and libel charges concerning tweets published last year that allegedly defamed the president. Assy recently apologized for the tweets, saying to Suleiman that the tweets: “do not befit you or your post as a president, or me as a Lebanese citizen who believes in the state of law and in the respect for the regulations and the Lebanese constitution.” Suleiman accepted the apology.
Mauritanian journalist Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed may face the death penalty over an article he published on December 31, on the news website Aqlame Horra (Free Pens). The article was deemed blasphemous to the Prophet Mohammed. Cheikh was charged with apostasy under Article 306 of the Mauritanian criminal code. Aqlame took down the article later, claiming that it had been posted “accidently” and by one of the editors “without reading it.”
“The charges against Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed belong to the era of medieval inquisitions,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists, which called for the journalist’s immediate release.
United Arab Emirates
Six Emiratis have been sent to prison by government authorities for comments they made on Twitter. Both Khalifa Rabeiah and Othman al-Shehhi were convicted on March 10 of criticizing security services on Twitter. Both were sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay fines after being detained for at least six months in unknown locations. Authorities in the UAE are using legislation governing the use of the Internet (passed in November 2012) as a way to arrest any citizen that criticizes security forces using social media.
The Abu Dhabi Police would like to regulate the use of Internet cafés in the emirate. The possible regulations, aimed at protecting children, would limit the hours that youth could access cafés.
Lakome, the popular site that was blocked in October following the arrest on terrorism charges of its co-founder, Ali Anouzla, remains blocked in the country. Anouzla, who was later released on bail, has yet to appear before an investigating judge, with his appearance postponed until May 20. Anouzla recently announced plans to start a new website, Lakome2.com.
Concern for two activists detained without charge by Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) is growing amid reports that one of the two may have been subjected to torture. The two activists—journalist and blogger Taj Aldeen Arjaa and university lecturer Sidig Noreen Ali Abdalla—have been held without access to legal representation. Their cases do not appear to be connected.
Sudan was among twenty nations that appeared on the annual “Enemies of the Internet” report created by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Sudan was cited for the country’s “Cyber Jihadist Unit,” which is reportedly tasked with “crushing” Internet dissidents.
Palestine’s IT sector faces numerous challenges. Israel refuses to release 3G frequencies for Palestinian mobile carriers restrictions that in turn create difficulties for entrepreneurs, but despite these setbacks, the sector is reportedly growing. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, former minister of telecommunications and information technology Mashhour Abudaka declared the Quartet’s efforts to overcome infrastructural barriers “totally useless” but stated that the technology sector was expanding in various ways.
A new app is being developed by the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The app would create a barcode scanner that would tell users the origin of a given product. Palestinian apps have been censored by Apple’s App Store in the past.
Qatar’s troubling draft cybercrime law, proposed in 2013, is moving forward after the Cabinet reportedly took “necessary measures” on the draft, taking into account comments from the government’s advisory council. After Cabinet approval, the legislation will only need the Emir’s signature before becoming law.
Two new Internet cable projects—one undersea and one terrestrial—will improve broadband connectivity for Qatar and much of the Gulf region, Gulf Times recently reported. More than 85% of Qatar’s population uses the Internet.
In Libya, where low Internet penetration often hinders the effectiveness of online platforms for mass communication, bloggers are reportedly discussing the draft constitution, expressing the need for it to be inclusive of diverse segments of Libyan society. No previous Libyan constitution has taken into account freedom of expression.
The Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh upheld a verdict against Human Rights activist Mukhlif AlShammari (whose trial started in March 2013) for writing about human rights abuses in 2009, and 2010, and for posting a video of Tabouk girls subjected to violence. On top of the ten-year travel ban placed on him, Al Shammari was sentenced to five years in prison and banned from writing in newspapers and on social networking websites. It also prevented him from appearing in media. Three years of the sentence were applied under the Cyber Crimes law. Al-Shammari will appeal the verdict before the Competent Court of Appeal on State Security and Terrorism in Riyadh within thirty days.
In March, two unidentified Saudi men were sentenced to eight and ten years in jail and banned from posting on social media because of their activities on Twitter and YouTube. The men faced charges ranging from mocking the monarch, to “re-tweeting calls for protests,” to “contacting people that called themselves the reformists,” and utilizing websites that are “hostile to the government and that promote deviant ideologies.”
RSF declared Saudi Arabia an “Enemy of the Internet” for its aggressive content blocking practices.
On March 15, activists marked the third anniversary of the Syrian uprising and the second anniversary of the imprisonment of Syrian web developer and activist Bassel Khartabil (aka Bassel Safadi) with the #FreeBassel campaign. Khartabil is one of many peaceful activists unjustly detained by the Syrian regime. A day prior, leading human rights organizations launched “Free Syria’s Silenced Voices” documenting the stories of human rights activists, independent journalists, and humanitarian workers who have been targeted by the Syrian regime. The new ebookBehind the Screens of the Syrian Resistance was also released for the occasion. Written by Monique Doppert, a media analyst and personal friend of Khartabil’s, the story chronicles Khartabil’s work as a web developer and open knowledge advocate, and his role in the Syrian uprising.
Researchers at the French firm Inria analyzed a 2011 data leak from the Syrian government’s BlueCoat proxy servers, revealing for the first time the scope and scale of an authoritarian regime’s censorship practices. The raw 600GB of data, obtained by the net activist group Telecomix under the #OpSyria initiative, documents 750 million requests. The analysis revealed that the government was blocking roughly 1% of traffic, but that censorship was highly targeted, affecting instant messaging software such as Skype, keywords, political news sites, video sharing, and circumvention technology. Social media was “lightly” censored, with the exception of select keywords, such as “proxy” and “Israel”. In the period since this data was obtained, the government reportedly invested an additional $500k in surveillance equipment, “suggesting that a more powerful filtering architecture” may now be in place.
A recent review by a researcher of the Syrian civil war estimates that Facebook content takedown policies have been responsible for the loss of some critical documentation about the conflict. One sample set found as many as 78% of original sources now missing. The social network’s practice of user-reported content violations has led both opposition and governments supporters to begin engineering takedowns of each others’ content. In October 2013, Facebook announced it had updated its policies to consider the context of “violent” or “controversial” content. Shortly thereafter, a number of popular activist pages disappeared from the site.
RSF’s “Enemies of the Internet” report detailed the threats on the Syrian internet to users. This includes censorship, infiltration by security services, targeted malware, hacking and intimidation by the ‘Syrian Electronic Army,’ and efforts by jihadi groups to monitoring online content.
In early February, well-known Yemeni blogger Feras Shamsan was detained while conducting an interview at Cairo’s international book fair, allegedly after a passerby objected to his interviewee’s response to a question. Shamsan was released after 36 days.
Yemeni officials, including the Minister of Telecommunications and Information Technology, met with Egyptian counterparts to discuss opportunities and collaboration for improving Yemeni Internet infrastructure.
The Freedom Foundation, a Yemeni media watchdog, presented its 2013 report on media freedom in the country. The report found that press freedom violations had fallen by nearly 35% from the previous year, but that murders and abductions remained a severe threat for media workers.
Approximately 80% of households in Oman have access to the Internet, according to a recent report. Only one quarter of individuals interviewed, however, said they use Twitter, and only 7% use blogs. 51% of Oman residents interviewed use YouTube.
Bahrain made it back onto RSF’s “Enemies of the Internet” list, following appearances in 2012 and 2013.
- Egyptian organization Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression published the second edition of a legal study on Freedom of Access of Information [ar].
- Online payment provider Payfort has will soon launch a program for e-commerce startups that will benefit companies in the region.
- Reporters Without Borders released their annual report on Enemies of the Internet, prompting EFF’s Jillian York to point out more countries deserving of the moniker.
- Voting on the Best of Blogs (The BOBs) awards will begin April 2.
- A report released by Pew Research’s Global Attitudes Project suggests that support for an open Internet is high in emerging countries; more than 80% of Egyptians and Lebanese surveyed support Internet freedom.
From our partners:
- 7iber is asking participants from the 2014 Arab Bloggers Meeting: What is the hardest topic to tackle in your countries?
- EFF released an updated version of its Encrypt the Web report, that explains which companies are engaging in best practices for user security.
- At Access Now’s RightsCon Silicon Valley conference, a statement from Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah, then still in prison, was read. Access announced the next RightsCon will be held in Manila, Philippines, in March 2015.
- The International Press Institute’s World Congress takes place 12-15 April in Cape Town, South Africa.
- The next confab of the Freedom Online Coalition will take place in Tallinn, Estonia, April 28-29, 2014
- The International Journalism Festival will take place in Perugia, Italy 30 April-4 May and will feature speakers from all over the world.
- Deutsche Welle’s Global Media Forum takes place 30 June-2 July in Bonn, Germany.