Middle East and North Africa Netizen Report: First Edition

This month’s report was researched, edited, and written by Rayna StJillian C. York, and Hisham AlMiraat.

The inaugural monthly Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Netizen Report focuses on censorship, threats to bloggers and other netizens, and impending Internet regulation in Jordan and Iraq.  In addition to the categories highlighted in the weekly global Netizen Report, we have added a category to remember bloggers who are missing or detained, a common phenomenon in the region.

The idea for a MENA-specific Netizen Report came about at the recent Global Voices Summit as an effort to show the many region-specific threats to an open Internet.

Censorship

A bill submitted to Parliament in Tunisia by ruling party Ennadha last week would criminalize offenses against “sacred values,” and would effectively punish speech deemed to mock the sanctity of religion with large fines and punishment.  If passed, the bill would undoubtedly affect Internet users; in March, two young men were arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison for “violation of morality, and disturbing public order” after allegedly posting images depicting the Prophet Mohammed in the nude.

Jordan’s Ministry of Information and Communication Technology recently stated publicly that they were working with an Australian company to develop a system to filter pornographic content.  Furthermore, Internet Service Providers in the country have received directives from the Telecommunication Regulation Commission (TRC) to block such content. The government’s actions followed protests from citizens favoring censorship of “immoral” content. Citizens opposing the censorship have started a petition.

Thuggery

The Emirates Center for Human Rights reported earlier in July that Ahmed Abdul Khaleq was deported to Thailand on a Comoros arranged passport after the UAE authorities stripped him of of his right to reside in the country. UAE-born and raised Ahmed Abdul Khaleq is a blogger [fr] and activist from the stateless Bedoon minority in the Emirates. He was previously detained in 2011 along with four other activists after peacefully calling for democratic reforms in a discussion on the online platform UAE Hewar. Their case—known as “UAE5”—is considered as political thus making Abdul Khaleq a former prisoner of conscience. International rights organizations have picked up the case, denouncing the ever-worsening sophistication of repression in the Emirates. Abdul Khaleq’s case is a perfect illustration of this: the first of its kind where the detainee’s choice was to either remain in the UAE under unlimited detention or to be deported to Thailand where he has no connections.  The crackdown on dissidents continues in the Emirates with the arrest of ten more Islamists since authorities announced an investigation on foreign-based groups allegedly plotting against “the security of the state”. This follows upanother wave of arbitrary arrests of netizens and rights workers, seventeen of whom are still detained.

Former Kuwaiti MP Muhammad Al Juwaihal was arrested after allegedly tweeting against the Mutair tribe. The Kuwaiti emir has argued for a full application of the law against Al Juwaihal and his supporters. The former MP is known for his populist views and a strong anti-naturalisation line even before being elected in the Parliament.  Gulf News reports that theAmiri Diwan condemned the posting on social media which targeted the Prophet Mohammed’s grandsons. According to a local daily, the blogger is not a Kuwaiti citizen and his social media account is set up in another one of the Gulf states.

On July 9, an Omani court sentenced four netizens to prison on lèse-majesté charges. Three of them got one year imprisonment, the fourth, 6 months in prison and a fine. The Muscat Daily reported that all 1-year jail sentences are given according to the Cybercrime Law which punishes the use of Internet or other technologies to spread insults, defame or promote attacks on religious values. The shorter condemnation is in agreement with the Crime Law which punishes public defamation of “His Majesty the Sultan or his authority”. A few days later, Reuters reported that six netizens were also “sentenced to jail over “slandering” rulers through social media posts”. The charges are also for lèse-majesté. Reporters Without Borders has called for their liberation urging “the authorities to reconsider these convictions”.

In Syria, where a civil war is ongoing, Reporters Without Borders reports that the number of citizen journalists killed and arrested rises daily, and the Committee to Protect Journalists calls Syria the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist.  Most recently, it was reported that a young journalist from Latakia, Fatima Khaled Saad, had been detained for more than a month without being charged.  It was also recently reported that Mazen Darwish, the head of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression, was to be tried by a military court.  Darwish was initially detained along with several colleagues during a raid on the Centre; though his female colleagues were later released, he remains imprisoned along withHussein Ghreir, Hani Zetani, Mansour Al-Omari and Abdel Rahman Hamada.

Following a controversial debate about sex outside of marriage in Morocco, staff computers at the Moroccan Association of Human Rights were attacked with a Trojan that allowed the attackers to hack the site. The same Trojan seems to have been involved in a larger attack targeting a group of Moroccan activists who received a series of infected emails.

On July 9, a Bahraini court sentenced human rights activist Nabeel Rajab to 3 months in jail for a tweet. Rajab openly criticized Bahrain’s Prime Minister which caused him to be charged for “insulting in public.”

Voices Still Threatened

Among the many voices of bloggers that remain threatened are Usamah Mohammed Ali, a Sudanese activist known as @SimSimt on Twitter; Amnesty International has launched a urgent campaign for the liberation of Sudanese student Siddig Salah Siddig al-Bashir; Ali Abdulemam, the Bahraini blogger in hiding sentenced in absentia to fifteen years in prison; and Bassel (Safadi) Khartabil, Syrian blogger and Creative Commons representative, who has been missing since March, presumably detained by Syrian authorities.

National Policy

In a 16-page report published earlier in July, Human Rights Watch analyses and criticizes the new bill for internet regulation in Iraq. The human rights watchdog denounces it as “a severe threat to journalists, whistleblowers, and peaceful activists”. According to the NGO, this bill is an integral part of the Iraqi government’s efforts to suppress dissent.

Netizen Activism

Independent media outlet Nawaat denounces [fr] the various difficulties surrounding the open government initiatives in Tunisia. The short post discusses the “hidden face of transparency”: it argues that OpenGov activists and involved netizens do not put enough effort into the mining and the analysis of already available data. Such a lack of involvement can be used as “a tool for sabotage”, warns the author, explaining that the public administrations can easily release a huge amount of data and accuse the OpenGov proponents of inactivity and failed civic participation. For more regular updates, you can ask to join the Facebook group OpenGovTn [fr, ar] and follow them on Twitter [fr, ar].

Under the title “Pirates want to Internet to change Tunisia”, Deutsche Welle publishes an article presenting the Tunisian Pirate Party narrating the difficulties this young political formation faces in the post-revolutionary social and political landscape in Tunisia.

Amidst the uprising taking place in Sudan is an online component. Although Internet penetration in the North African country lingers around ten percent, savvy groups like Girifna utilize online organizing tactics, while Sudanese protesters have reportedly been in touch with activists in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria for tips on circumventing censorship and avoiding surveillance. The website Sudan Revolts provides a wealth of links and information.

Cybersecurity

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) discusses the dangers of having weakly protected email and social network accounts. CPJ’s Danny O’Brien goes through the very recent example of Reuters’s Twitter accounts hacked by pro-Assad supporters. Such a security breach, O’Brien argues, is part of the media war around the Syrian uprising since similar fallible technical issues put at risk the objectivity of the reporting by planting false stories.

Sovereigns of Cyberspace

A new project, founded by Palestinian entrepreneur Ramzi Jaber, was announced at the Global Voices Summit in July. The project, OnlineCensorship.org, tracks instances of content removal and account deactivation on social networking platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, based on user reports.

Surveillance

FinFisher—the elusive spyware tool found last year to have been pitched to Egyptian state security by sales executives—was recently unearthed by Bahraini activists and is being scrutinized by researchers at the University of Toronto Munk School of Global Affairs’ Citizen Lab, according to Bloomberg.  Defending the tool, FinFisher executive Martin Muench told Bloomberg that FinFisher “is a tool for monitoring criminals, and that to reduce the risk of abuse of its products the company only sells FinFisher to governments.”  Additional research by Boston-based company Rapid7 found the tool to be used on at least five continents.

On July 20, the freshly appointed French State Secretary for Digital Economy, Fleur Pellerin, declared during a radio show that she was “opposed to the idea that her country continues to sell surveillance technology to oppressive regimes”. The statement fueled speculations about the intention of the Hollande administration to stop its exports of mass surveillance technology to countries like Syria, Bahrain, Morocco, Gabon and Cambodia. The French government is a major stakeholder in major French surveillance companies like Bull, which systems are known to have equipped the secret services of the former regimes of Gaddafi in Libya and Ben Ali in Tunisia.

A screenshot of el3askarmap, which documents former senior military officials who have landed influential jobs in the civil administration after retiring.

Cool things

Egyptian activists have launched el3askarmap [ar]: an extensive mapping of senior army officers who land in influential positions within the civil administration after retirement. The project has already catalogued more than 400 such former military officers. You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter [ar].

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For upcoming events related to the future of citizen rights in the digital age, see the Global Voices Events Calendar.

5 comments

  • Tiedjen, Joerg

    … hello, this is an interesting and helpful article, but it is not really a report. Unfortunately most available reports are already a little bit out of date. So I think what is missing is a report who covers all the events and changes since the beginning of the “arab spring”, or maybe already before, when the first facebook groups occured, and governments noticed this developpement. Also I recognized that some available reports are not neutral. Kind regards JT

  • Hi Joerg, thank you for your feedback.

    I’m not sure what you mean with “not really a report”, though. If you refer to a research review, this is a different question. The Netizen Report aims at collecting information about stuff in relationship to this site’s focus which is free speech online. Its aim is not therefore to be a research article :)

    Lastly, what do you mean exactly with “Also I recognized that some available reports are not neutral.”?

    Best,

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