Digital Citizen is a monthly review of news, policy, and research on human rights in the Arab World.

Spotlight on Bahrain

February 14 marked the fifth anniversary of the 2011 peaceful pro-democracy uprisings in Bahrain. Rather than heed protesters’ demands, the government of Bahrain has intensified its repression of free speech in the press and on the Internet in the intervening years.

Consistently ranked among the least free nations globally, Bahrain regularly flouts its obligations to uphold free expression under international law, employing a variety of illegal tactics to chill critical speech, including home raids; revoking the citizenship of 72 people, including opposition activists such as Ali Abdulemam; perpetrating enforced disappearances; and prosecuting journalists and activists on terrorism charges. Underscoring this trend, in February 2015, Bahrain enacted the region’s 10th anti-cybercrime law, which, like those of its GCC neighbors, further represses dissent by considering critical expression transmitted over electronic devices and networks as a crime.

In the last four months of 2015, the Bahraini authorities made more than 400 arrests, of which only about 25 percent were conducted in accordance with international law, according to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. At the end the year, more than 20 journalists, photographers, bloggers, and internet activists were under arrest or serving sentences for documenting protests, defamation, “using social networks to incite hatred of the regime,” spreading false news, inciting sectarianism, and insulting the king, among other charges.

Among the most recent arrests are that of award-winning photographer Sayed Ahmed al-Mousawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and had his nationality revoked in November, after covering a series of demonstrations in early 2014 and allegedly distributing SIM cards to protesters. Security forces detained Al-Mousawi for over a year without trial or official charges, accused him of being a part of a terrorist cell, and subjected him to torture.

On December 28, 2015, security forces raided the house of journalist Mahmood al-Jazeeri and arrested him without presenting a legal warrant or informing him or his family of the cause of his arrest. His latest report, which covered one of the Shura Council’s member’s demands to take away housing from those who have had their citizenship revoked by the authorities, was considered politically sensitive. Al-Jazeeri was later accused with writing statements for the country’s unlicensed opposition under terrorism law. He denied all charges, but remains in jail awaiting trial.

The end of the year didn’t mark the end of the arrests. Last month, a court upheld photographer Ahmed Al-Fardan’s three-month prison sentence on charges of “attempting” to protest. During his arrest, police raided Al-Fardan’s house, confiscating his camera and other electronic devices. His imprisonment was preceded by other incidents in which he was kidnapped and allegedly tortured and beaten by security forces.

On 14 February, the authorities arrested four American journalists, who were covering protests in Sitra, an island near Manama. Bahrain’s MOI stated that it had arrested one of the journalists with a “a riot group” in Sitra and the others were arrested at a checkpoint. Bahrain has made it extremely difficult for journalists to legally cover protests and opposition activities. The four journalists were released on 16 February, pending investigation, and were allowed to leave Bahrain. Their cameras, hard drives and other belongings, however, were confiscated by the authorities.

BRIEFS

Access & Interference

  • In January, Morocco blocked services providing mobile internet calls including WhatsApp, Skype, and Viber.
  • In a study of the Internet speeds of 31 countries, Egypt came in last place, with maximum fixed connection speeds at 1.7 megabits per second (Mbps).

Free Expression & Censorship

  • The Arabic-language news site al-Araby al-Jadeed and its English language version The New Arab have both been blocked in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. None of the countries provided explanations for the blocking.
  • A warrant has been issued for the arrest of a Facebook administrator in Egypt after he commented on the site that Egyptian women are “ready for immorality.”
  • In Jordan, a man was arrested [ar] over a comment he posted on the Al Jazeera website, in which he attacked the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad and subsequently shared the article on Facebook. He was accused by the State Security Court of using the internet to promote ISIS and incite against the Jordanian regime. The kingdom has also blocked [ar] 30 websites for violating licensing terms.
  • Managing editors of the government-owned Bayan Newspaper in the UAE have been fired for printing a tweet [ar] deemed insulting to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Rashed.
  • Last year, Israeli authorities reportedly arrested over 130 Palestinians for their activities on Facebook. Recently, a Palestinian photographer was detained by the Palestinian Authority overnight for an Instagram post, and another Palestinian man was arrested by Israeli forces for threatening comments against former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Content Takedowns

  • “Following complaints by users,” Facebook removed a photograph by a Tunisian photographer showing bruises on the naked body of a woman victim of domestic violence.

Trials, Sentencing, and Judicial Harassment

  • On 15 February, a UAE court has postponed the trial of Omani blogger Muawiya Al-Rawahi for the fifth time.
  • Activist Hassan al-Basham was sentenced to three years in prison in Oman for “insulting the Sultan” and “the use of the Internet in what might be prejudicial to religious values.”
  • Ali Anouzla, editor of the news site Lakome2, stood trial on 9 February, for “endangering Morocco’s territorial integrity,” a charge punishable by up to five years in jail. Anouzla is being prosecuted over a translation error by the German newspaper BILD, which misquoted Anouzla as having referred to “ Western Sahara” as “occupied.” Under Moroccan legislation, questioning the kingdom’s claims to the Western Sahara is an offense. The trial was postponed to 22 March. Seven free expression advocates, including Hisham Almiraat (former Advox director and founding member of Digital Citizen) are also facing trial in the country.

Travel Bans

  • Egyptian human rights lawyer and head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) Gamal Eid was banned from travel in early February, prompting a letter from several human rights organizations (see below). Later in the month, journalist and founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) Hossam Bahgat also was banned from travel.

Advocacy, Policy & Law

  • Kuwait has adopted a new law that establishes a licensing scheme for electronic media.
  • The UAE has adopted a new draft law toughening penalties for IP address spoofing. The draft prescribes up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to 2 million dirhams for IP address spoofing “with a criminal intent.”
  • Several rights groups—including the Gulf Centre for Human Rights and Article 19—have issued a statement condemning Kuwait’s Cybercrime Law No. 63.
  • Reporters Without Borders submitted a list of recommendations to the Tunisian minister of information and communications technologies to reinforce the right to information online.
  • The Palestinian Internet Society chapter published a position paper [ar] on a government plan to block pornographic content.
  • An increasing number of travel bans on writers, activists, and bloggers in Egypt has prompted several human rights organizations to issue a joint statement protesting the use of travel bans to intimidate human rights defenders and urging the international community to take a stand.

Recognition & Solidarity

Long Reads: Context on Egypt

  • In a piece for Foreign Policy, journalist and author Rula Jebreal compares Sisi’s Cairo to Brezhnev’s Moscow.
  • Writing for Mada Masr, Khaled Mansour asks: “Is this the end of rule of law in Egypt?”

From Our Partners

Image: “Face to Face Shooting in Bahrain” by Surian Soosay (CC BY 2.0)