Digital Citizen is a monthly review of news, policy, and research on human rights and technology in the Arab World.
“When detainees ask to see a warrant, they may be hit over the head with the butt of a gun, as in the case of a leftist blogger, Alaa Abd El Fattah, and his wife, Manal. When a prominent international judge reviewed Manal’s account of the arrest, he described it as reminiscent of the days of apartheid in South Africa.” – Bahey El Din Hassan, New York Times, February 12, 2014
Alaa Abd El Fattah has been in prison since late November, when he was arrested on accusation of organizing a protest without obtaining legal permission. In January, both Alaa and his sister, Mona Seif, received one-year suspended sentences in a case in which they were accused of torching former Presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq’s campaign headquarters. Other prominent activists, including Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma, and Mohamed Adel have also faced similar charges.
In January, a coalition of more than 40 organizations called for the release of Alaa Abd El Fattah and other unjustly detained Egyptian activists. In the statement, Alaa’s father, Ahmed Seif, is quoted as saying:
The Prosecution has done everything in its power to impede Alaa’s appeal against his imprisonment on remand. It has been more than a month since the Prosecution completed its investigations and referred the case to the Criminal Court, but lawyers have still not been allowed access to the case file, and neither a district nor a date have been set for the trial.
As with the detention of several Al Jazeera journalists, these cases are emblematic of the brazen censorship being imposed by Egypt's current military regime. Press freedom advocates have described current restrictions on the press as “greater than those imposed by either Morsi or his predecessor, autocrat Hosni Mubarak.”
Tunisia’s new Technical Telecommunications Agency, also known as A2T, will undertake electronic surveillance in service of judicial investigations. Index on Censorship's Afef Abrougui writes:
Tunisia's interim authorities have failed to introduce real reforms in order to cut ties with the surveillance abuses of the past. Before taking the step to establish a surveillance entity the priority should have been repealing the dictatorship era laws and legally consolidating personal data protection.
Local activists organized a “Stop #A2T” campaign, urging the government to hold public hearings about the agency’s structure and legal obligations, but thus far authorities have not sought to engage civil society in planning discussions.
Activists and legal experts fear that Morocco's Code Numérique, a draft bill put forward by Ahmed Reda Chami, former Minister of Industry, Trade, and New Technologies, could jeopardize online freedoms. In an interview with EFF, activist Zineb Belmkaddem explained:
[The] strategy of the Moroccan authorities has been to “watch” the internet, and often times intimidate and humiliate those who criticize the regime, rather than censor…However, as the numbers of protesters shrank due to police violence, arrests and intimidation, the authorities had regained control of the streets and tried to control the Internet.
Journalist Ali Anouzla, arrested in last September and released provisionally on bail in late October, still faces charges under Morocco’s terrorism statutes for linking to an article containing a YouTube video allegedly posted by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. At a January press conference in Rabat, Khadija Ryadi, head of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, called for all charges against Anouzla to be dropped “because we are convinced of his innocence. This is not just for Ali…we are fighting for freedom for all.”
On January 10, Aisha Ibrahim Al-Zaabi was arbitrarily detained as she attempted to leave the UAE with her 18-month-old son in an effort to reunite with her husband, human rights defender Mohamed Saqer Al-Zaabi. Currently exiled in the UK, Saqer Al-Zaabi was convicted in absentia in the trial of 94 human rights defenders and activists in July 2013. His wife is not known to be involved in any political activity but rather appears to be the target of a campaign of punishment against her husband. Ibrahim Al-Zaabi was arrested at the Omani border and taken away by state security officers, leaving her father and her son behind.
Shezanne Cassim, an American citizen imprisoned for posting a satirical video on Dubai youth culture on YouTube, was released on January 9. Cassim was accused of “defaming the country's image abroad” under the country’s cybercrime law and sentenced to jail, deportation, and a fine in December 2013. Upon his return to the US, Cassim sharply criticized the UAE, saying: “I did nothing wrong. There was nothing illegal about the video, even under UAE law. I was tried in a textbook kangaroo court, and I was convicted without any evidence.”
On December 25, 2013, the Abu Dhabi Federal Court sentenced human rights advocate Mohamed Salem Al-Zumer to three years in prison and a fine of 500,000 Emirati Dirhams (US$136,091) over accusations of insulting the president and the prince of Abu Dhabi on Twitter.
The Abu Dhabi court also issued a verdict against human rights advocate Abdul Rahman Omar Bajubair, who lives outside the UAE, demanding that he be detained for five years on accusations of managing a website called Motadaminoon, which the court claims had offended the honor of the Federal Court's judges and the court's prestige.
A new policy requires mobile phone users to register their devices — those using local SIM cards will have their service deactivated if they do not comply with the rule. On a similar note, Jordan’s Telecommunication Regulatory Commission is seeking to implement a system for tracking phones coming in and out of Jordan. The Commission's stated aim is to track stolen devices and protect consumers from counterfeited ones, but the system could also lead to broad mobile phone surveillance.
In addition to traditional and chemical warfare used in Syria, malicious software is being deployed against the Syrian opposition and being used to hijack Facebook pages, install malware, and trick targets into clicking malicious links. A study by EFF and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab analyzes and documents evidence of these trends. The study warns Syrians to use caution when opening email attachments or clicking links posted to Facebook and YouTube.
US-based online learning platform Coursera was recently blocked in all countries under US trade sanctions, including Syria. The block on Syria was lifted shortly thereafter, following a series of activist reports on the issue.
Sudan has been known to censor the Internet, but—as analysts with the New America Foundation recently pointed out—they’re not the only government affecting what Sudanese citizens can see and use online. In an article for Slate, Danielle Kehl and Tim Maurer write:
Currently, Sudan is one of five countries in the world subject to comprehensive U.S. sanctions, which are designed to change governments’ behavior. But some of the provisions of those sanctions have become outdated—especially when it comes to new technologies like personal communication tools.
You might think that the Internet doesn’t play an important role in Sudan. But Dalia Haj-Omar, a Sudanese activist and blogger, told us in an email that the Internet is “the only platform for free civic engagement in Sudan.
The Council on Foreign Relations joined their call to push back against technology sanctions affecting the country, pointing readers to a call from Sudanese civil society to end the burden of technology sanctions.
Sudanese blogger Tajeldin Arja, arrested on December 24 2013, remains in detention for his criticism of the Sudanese and Chadian presidents. Arja, who hails from North Darfur, was arrested for standing in the front row of a press conference in Khartoum and shouting criticism at the presidents of both Sudan and Chad. His arrest was caught on video by an anonymous attendee and uploaded to YouTube. On February 18, activists called for his release at a peaceful sit-in before the national Human Rights Commission.
In mid-January, Hamas announced that their Twitter account, @alqassambrigade, had been suspended by Twitter. Writing for Index on Censorship, Ruth Michaelson said:
Social media, while potentially a tool for propaganda, is one of the few ways that the wider public is able to know what is happening inside Al Qassam Brigades and Hamas. Cutting off this line further maligns part of a regime that uses this seclusion to its political advantage within Gaza, and allows Hamas to further clamp down on free speech within the Strip. In short: the content may be a strange development on Twitter, but its absence potentially has tangible effects for people on the ground.
In early December, the head of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom—an institution that provides training and support for journalists and advocates for press freedom—was fired without explanation. Jan Keulen, a Dutch journalist who has worked in the region for many years, called his sacking a “political decision.”
Activist Zainab Al-Khawaja was released from prison on February 16 after spending one year behind bars. Although Al-Khawaja was sentenced for “participating in an illegal gathering,” she is an outspoken Twitter user and drew the government’s ire for her tweets posted at @angryarabiya.
Protests in Bahrain on February 14 marked the third anniversary of the 2011 uprisings in the Gulf nation. Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights used a crowdsourcing tool to map arrests and other abuses of protesters.
Social Media Exchange has identified several instances of Internet filtering in Lebanon, a country where traditional censorship is not uncommon but Internet censorship has been rare. The filtering is applied inconsistently across ISPs and demonstrates a lack of transparency in the blocking process.
Twitter user Jean Assy was sentenced to two months in prison on charges of insulting the president on Twitter. The decision found that Assy’s tweets constituted “defamation and libel” and stood in violation of Lebanon’s broadly-worded media and publications law. Assy remains free for now, and plans to appeal the verdict, challenging the court’s interpretation of Twitter as a “media outlet” in Lebanon. Freedom of speech advocates in Lebanon are highlighting Assy's case in a call for reforms to existing law, including an end to the “criminalization of public expression.”
A new anti-terrorism law in the Gulf country threatens free speech, says Human Rights Watch (HRW). The new law reportedly defines terrorism as:
Any act carried out by an offender in furtherance of an individual or collective project, directly or indirectly, intended to disturb the public order of the state, or to shake the security of society, or the stability of the state, or to expose its national unity to danger, or to suspend the basic law of governance or some of its articles, or to insult the reputation of the state or its position, or to inflict damage upon one of its public utilities or its natural resources, or to attempt to force a governmental authority to carry out or prevent it from carrying out an action, or to threaten to carry out acts that lead to the named purposes or incite [these acts].
HRW’s Sarah Leah Whitson stated that the terrorism law “would allow the government to label any Saudi who demands reform or exposes corruption as a terrorist.”
From our partners
An Advox article by Walid Al-Saqaf, head of ISOC Yemen, explores the false dichotomy of surveillance vs. censorship.
A December 2013 EFF blog post looks at the ways in which Arab activists are fighting back against censorship and surveillance.
Social Media Exchange is collecting and sharing high-quality guides on media policy and Internet governance in the Arab world on their new platform, Tasharuk.
7iber’s Doaa Ali wrote a review of the Heinrich Boell Foundation conference, “Whatever Happened to Privacy?” [ar]
Research and collaboration
The fourth Arab Bloggers Meeting (#AB14) took place in late January in Amman, Jordan, bringing together over 70 individuals from across the region and around the world. Photographer and 7iber staff member Amer Sweidan developed a moving series of portraits of #AB14 participants expressing wishes for the future.
A November 2013 paper by The Citizen Lab shows how content filtering software Smartfilter—used by the Saudi and UAE governments—miscategorizes content.
Participants in the Arab Free Press Forum, which took place in November in Tunisia, say the Arab world needs more access to independent media.
In December the Institute for War and Peace Reporting launched the Cyber Arabs Online Academy, a platform dedicated to providing online training and resources on digital security issues in Arabic.
Egyptian Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) publishes an Arabic Introduction to Open Knowledge.
RightsCon (hosted by partner organization Access) – March 3-5, San Francisco
The International Journalism Festival – April 30 – May 4, Perugia
Digital Citizen is brought to you by Advox, Access, EFF, Social Media Exchange, and 7iber.com. This month’s report was researched, edited, and written by Ellery Roberts Biddle, Mariwan R. Hama, Wafa Ben Hassine, Reem Al Masri, Dalia Othman, and Jillian C. York and translated into Arabic by Mohamed El Gohary.