Digital Citizen is a monthly review of news, policy, and research on human rights in the Arab World.
Spotlight on Egypt
Egypt continues to crack down on NGOs and human rights defenders, putting digital rights at greater risk. For several months, Facebook users have faced threat of arrest for comments; now lawmakers are suggesting new legislation to “control the excesses” of speech on the platform. In related news, it was recently revealed that the Egyptian government blocked Facebook’s Free Basics service because the company refused to give the government the ability to spy on users. Nevertheless, the government appears to be exploiting other means of gaining access to user accounts, by manipulating the two-step verification process. Since the fall of 2014, at least 95 Egyptian nationals have been arrested based on statements they posted on social media sites.
Despite Egypt’s urge to surveil, the government is refusing to hand over phone records relevant to Italy’s investigation of the killing of Italian student Giulio Regeni in January. Assistant Public Prosecutor Mostafa Suleiman stated in a press conference that doing so would be “unconstitutional.” Italy has stated that it will take measures against Egypt if the government does not release the phone records.
Finally, Egypt’s preeminent human rights defenders and their organizations are at grave risk. As Gamal Eid, founder and director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece this week, his organization—along with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR)—is being targeted “because our groups provide critical resources to those facing human rights abuses in Egypt.” Both Eid and EIPR director Hossam Baghat have been banned from travel outside Egypt.
Access & Interference
- In late February, Morocco’s telecommunications regulator blocked VoIP services over wifi, after blocking them over 3G and 4G in January.
- Tunisia is expected to officially launch 4G this summer.
- The Lebanese government is investigating the country’s illegal internet providers, after the country’s telecommunications minister charged that their connections “were being used by Israel to spy on citizens and institutions.”
Free Expression & Censorship
- Abdul Sattar Makandar, a migrant worker from India who recorded a video decrying his life as a truck driver in Saudi Arabia, was arrested after the video was uploaded by an activist in his native country and went viral.
- An Algerian court ordered Zoulika Belarbi to pay a fine of about US $1,000 for “undermining the president of the republic” by posting a satirical image of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to Facebook. Belarbi, who asserts that the government has violated her constitutional right to privacy in reading her Facebook page, will appeal.
Privacy, Surveillance & Data Protection
- As part of its State of Surveillance project, Privacy International published reports looking into surveillance-related legislation and practices in Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia. On 24 February, Privacy International also published an investigation into the sale of European surveillance technologies to the Technical Research Department, which the organization describes as “a secret unit of Egypt’s intelligence infrastructure.”
- Bahrain has recently announced measures targeting users’ private communications over the messaging app WhatsApp. On 6 March, the ministry of education sent a letter to head teachers of high schools requiring them to make sure that messages “harmful to the country, the ministry and schools,” are not circulated in WhatsApp groups used by teachers and their students to communicate. A few weeks earlier, the head of an anti-cyber-crime department at the ministry of interior warned that WhatsApp administrators are responsible and legally liable for any defamatory messages or rumors circulated in their groups.
Trials, Sentencing, and Judicial Harassment
- An Egyptian court sentenced four boys, aged 15 and 16, to five years in jail for contempt of religion over a video in which they were mocking ISIS members’ beheading of an individual after finishing their Muslim prayer.
- On 17 February, an Omani court sentenced cartoonist and writer Sayyid Abdullah al-Daruri to three months in jail over a Facebook post that emphasized his Dhofari affiliation, and called for a “United Sultanate” that include both Dhofar and Oman. Dhofar is the largest governorate in the Sultanate of Oman.
- On 14 March, a UAE court acquitted Omani blogger Muawiya Al-Rawahi from charges of insulting the Emirates and its leaders on Twitter, and ordered his release on grounds that he is “mentally ill.” Al-Rawahi was later released.
- On 23 February a Tunisian court sentenced in absentia Slim Riahi, founder and leader of the Free Patriotic Union, a party in the current coalition government, to six months in jail over a defamatory Facebook post. In the 2014 post, Riahi accused Taher Ben Hassine, the owner of an opposition TV station at the time of Ben Ali, of being an informer to the regime.
- An Egyptian court sentenced journalist Mohamed Ali Hassan in absentia to five years in prison for “broadcasting false news and inciting protests” for a Facebook page on which he regularly criticized the government.
- The UAE sentenced a national of the Gulf to three years in prison and a Drh50,000 fine for ridiculing “the reputation of state symbols” and for allegedly describing Emirati soldiers killed during the Saudi-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen as ‘cowards’, in WhatsApp messages. After he serves his sentence, he will be deported.
- A court in Saudi Arabia sentenced a 28-year-old man to 10 years in jail, 2,000 lashes, and a 20,000 riyals ($5,300 US) fine for expressing his atheism in more than 600 tweets.
- The trial of seven Moroccan journalists and human rights defenders, including Hisham Almiraat, was postponed again on March 23. The new trial date is June 29. Charges include “threatening the internal security of the State” and “receiving foreign funding without notifying the General Secretariat of the government.”
Advocacy, Policy, & Law
- Moroccans are fighting to reverse their government’s decision to block VoIP services earlier this year.
Recognition & Solidarity
- On March 14, Bahraini security forces raided the house of human rights activist Zainab al-Khawaja and arrested her with her 15-month-old son on charges related to her activism and exercise of free expression. On April 12, more than 40 NGOs signed a letter petitioning King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa for her immediate release.
- On the fourth anniversary of the arrest of Syrian software developer Bassel Khartabil, who has been missing since September 2015, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, as well as nearly 50,000 others, implore the world to ask #WhereIsBassel?
- SecondMuse released a report about Internet freedom in Tunisia and the challenges journalists and bloggers face.
- The Columbia Journalism Review published an edited version of a speech by Emily Bell on the “end of news as we know it,” and how social media is “swallowing” journalism.
- The Samir Kassir Center for Media and Cultural Freedom has recently published two reports about digital rights in Lebanon: Digital Rights and Online Expression in Lebanon, about how the country’s legal framework impacts online journalists and media professionals, and Digital Rights, Online Media and Electoral Campaigns.
- The Berkman Center published “Mobilisation for Change,” a series of reports “examining the role of the networked public sphere in advancing civic participation and collective action in the Arab region.”
- An MIT political scientist and her colleagues used cell phone metadata to learn about daily life in Yemen and the impact of drone strikes.
- Hivos and Article 19 launched the “Internet Legislation Atlas,” a project analyzing Internet-related legislation in six MENA countries and Iran and its conformity with international human rights law.
From Our Partners
- Onlinecensorship.org, a project of EFF and Visualizing Impact, released its first report on insights from four months of crowdsourced data on social media censorship.
- SMEX hosted a three-day participatory symposium on countering violent extremism online and the intersections of this burgeoning global policy agenda with free expression and other digital rights. Proceedings were tweeted at #HackingExtremism.
Digital Citizen is brought to you by Advox, Access, APC, EFF, Social Media Exchange, and 7iber.com. This month’s report was researched, edited, written, and translated by Afef Abrougui, Khadija Ahmed, Fahmi Albaheth, Jessica Dheere, Nolla Cherfan, Mohamed ElGohary, Mohamad Najem, Courtney Radsch, Thalia Rahme, and Jillian C. York.
Image by Visualizing Impact, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0