Digital Citizen is a monthly review of news, policy, and research on human rights and technology in the Arab World.
Over the past few years, Morocco has made strides increasing Internet access for its citizens and scaling back online censorship. The Feb20 movement—Morocco’s answer to the Arab Spring—operated for the most part freely online. More recently, Moroccans enraged by the King’s pardon of a convicted pedophile mounted an unprecedented online campaign—dubbed #DanielGate—ultimately resulted in rescinding the pardon.
But recent events in the country threaten that progress. On September 17, Ali Anouzla—the co-founder and Arabic-language editor of a popular online publication, Lakome—was arrested after publishing an article that mentioned a YouTube video attributed to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Titled “Morocco: Kingdom of Corruption and Despotism,” the video was critical of Moroccan King Mohammed VI. Reporters Without Borders quoted the local public prosecutor as saying that Anouzla was arrested “as a result of the dissemination of an AQIM video inciting others to commit terrorism acts.” In fact, Anouzla’s article did not endorse the video in anyway, and only linked to an article in Spanish paper El Pais which contained a link to the original video. After being held for a little over a week, Anouzla was charged on September 25 with “material assistance” to a terrorist group, “defending terrorism,” and “inciting the execution of terrorist acts.”
His case has spawned unprecedented support from inside Morocco and all over the world. One letter from sixty human rights groups calls for Anouzla’s immediate release and an end to judicial and media harassment against him. Now, Lakome.com and several mirrors of the site have been reported blocked in the country.
On October 25, Anouzla was released provisionally on bail, but still faces charges. Said his lawyer, Hassan Semlali: “Ali should not have spent a single minute in prison. He is an independent journalist who fights constantly for human rights.”
In a separate event, a pair of high school students spent a week in jail after a friend posted a photograph of them kissing to Facebook. Their arrest prompted a campaign in which supporters posted their own kissing photos to social networks in solidarity with the pair. Anonymous later got in on the game, hacking Moroccan government sites and dumping their data online.
In a rare bit of good news, Mohammed Hassan (aka Safy), the detained Bahraini blogger and Global Voices author we reported on in our last edition, has been released on bail. Though the fate of his case remains up in the air, we are glad to see Safy at home with his family.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights recently published messages from inside the walls of Bahrain’s prisons, including from activists Nabeel Rajab and Zainab Al-Khawaja. An audio version of Al-Khawaja’s message has been posted to YouTube.
On October 22, human rights defender Mohammed Al-Maskati was summoned for interrogation by local police. Al-Maskati, the founder and President of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR), works to document human rights abuses and organizes training workshops in Bahrain. Frontline Defenders is calling for an end to the ongoing harassment of Al-Maskati.
Human Rights Watch reported a “spate of prosecutions for free speech” in Tunisia, where the ruling Ennadha party recently agreed to step down in an attempt to resolve an ongoing political crisis. Among those detained was union leader Walid Zarrouk, for criticizing the politicization of judicial proceedings on Facebook. Zarrouk was charged with “accusing, without proof, a public agent of violating the law”; “defamation of public officials”; distributing information “likely to harm public order”; and “disrupting lives through public communication networks” according to his attorney. He was detained for several weeks but was released when his case was transferred to the tribunal of Bizerte.
On October 9, Algerian security forces arrested blogger Abdel Ghani Aloui, 24, for posting on his Facebook account a caricature mocking Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Aloui has been accused of ‘compromising the authority, insulting the president and inciting terrorism’. An Algerian judge has elected to keep Aloui in prison as the official investigation of his conduct takes place. As in other North African countries, Algeria has frequently accused activists and citizen journalists of “incitement of terrorism” when detaining them for political reasons. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information has called the case against Aloui a farce and demands his release.
In early October, the second annual Arab Internet Governance Forum was held in Algiers. Our own Wafa Ben Hassine attended, and wrote a critique of the event. Citing “a stark absence of local representation,” she concludes that while the Arab IGF met its stated goals of fostering debate and discussion, future events would benefit from greater participation from all sectors, particularly civil society.
Twenty-three year-old Palestinian activist and Haifa resident Razi Nabulsi was arrested on October 9 by Israeli Police and detained for a week on grounds of ‘incitement.’ Police confiscated a computer and mobile phone from Nabulsi’s home, among other things. According to the prosecution, Nabulsi’s Facebook statuses and his possession of books by Ghassan Kanafani—declared secret evidence by the prosecution—were deemed to be incitement. According to 972 Magazine, the offending Facebook status update read “One day the nightmare will be over,” and was used by the prosecutor to suggest Nabulsi was expressing his wish for the end of the Israeli state.
According to local press reports, a court has sentenced an online activist to two years in prison. Hijab al-Hajri was reportedly charged for Twitter posts insulting to the emir. Over the past two years, Kuwait has charged dozens of people for similar offenses. In July, however, the emir marked the start of Ramadan by pardoning all those convicted of insulting him.
On October 3, prominent opposition writer Mohammad Al-Wushaihi was sentenced to three months in jail for tweets deemed derogatory to a former prime minister. Al-Wushaihi began serving his term immediately but is appealing the sentence.
In late September, online publication Mada Masr reported that telephone and Internet networks were being intermittently shut down in North Sinai, as part of an effort to crack down on militant attacks on infrastructure in the embattled region.
An October piece from Index on Censorship compares Egypt’s media strategy to China’s, stating: “The muzzling of the press through continued intimidation and the sweeping arrests of journalists, bloggers and rights activists bears testimony to the fact that neither country is serious about carrying out the desired democratic reforms.”
The Egypt Independent reported that Egypt may begin charging those accused of “harming national unity” under new terrorism statutes. Article 22 of the draft terrorism law would ban “promoting terrorist ideas through media, including websites.” Article 28 would classify hackers who attack official government websites as terrorists.
In 2011, Saudi advocates launched a campaign supporting a woman’s right to drive. The campaign—dubbed Women2Drive—was in some ways successful, mobilizing large numbers of women, and continues to this day. Recently, however, Saudi authorities blocked Oct26driving.com after the site published a statement calling on authorities to allow women to drive, stating that Sharia law does not dictate that women should be forbidden from doing so. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information called the ban an encroachment on both freedom of expression and women’s rights.
On October 26, the Women2Drive campaign relaunched, with word spreading quickly through social media and hundreds of women driving in the kingdom without incident. A video, created by young male allies in the conservative country and dubbed “No Women No Drive,” reached almost four million views in just two days.
Saudi school teacher Tariq al-Mubarak, who also works as a columnist and blogger for London-based Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, was arrested on October 27 for lending his support to the campaign. On Twitter, users voiced support for his release under the hashtag #FreeTariqalMubarak. The teacher was released after eight days’ detention.
The Sudanese government cut off access to the Internet on September 25, after days of anti-government demonstrations triggered by fuel subsidy cutbacks. Network monitoring firm Renesys called this “the largest national blackout since Egypt disconnected itself in January 2011.” The shutdown took place at the same time that African government officials and members of civil society were meeting in Johannesburg for the African Internet Governance Forum. During the shutdown, hundreds of protesters were arrested and dozens killed.
In Jordan, tens of activists are will soon stand trial before the State Security Court—a special court that shirks basic guarantees of a fair trial—for acts of online expression. They face charges ranging from “attempting to disrupt the state’s system of governance” to “extending the tongue” (against Jordan’s king). Activist Ayman Al Bahrawi has been charged with “disrupting friendly relationships with neighboring countries” for a WhatsApp message deemed insulting to Egyptian General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. The message read: “Sisi is more criminal than Bashar [Al Assad]…may God reclaim them both.” The Jordanian government has refused to comment on the case.
The publisher and chief editor of the Jafra News website was arrested on September 17 under an order from the state security court for “disturbing relations with a foreign state.” The arrest occurred shortly after website had featured a YouTube video allegedly showing a Qatari prince sitting, dancing, and showering with several women.
Thousands of individuals have been detained administratively by orders of provisional governors under the Crime Prevention Law of 1954, without trial or access to legal justice. Scores of websites have been blocked following amendments to the Press and Publication Law, which imposes mandatory registration and licensing on websites that “publish news, investigations, articles, or comments related to Jordan’s internal or external affairs,” and give the director of the Press and Publication department full authority to block unlicensed websites.
Three and a half months after 7iber was blocked by the Press and Publication department, and after the case 7iber filed to challenge the blocking decision was dismissed by the Higher Court of Justice, 7iber took the opportunity of Blog Action Day to answer the question they often hear: “Why don’t you just get licensed?”
7iber believes that the Press and Publication Law violates the basic right of freedom of expression and press freedom guaranteed by the Jordanian Constitution and by international conventions of human rights ratified by Jordan, for the following reason: Article 15.4 of the Jordanian Constitution states: “In the event of the declaration of martial law or a state of emergency, a limited censorship on newspapers, publications, books and broadcasts in matters affecting public safety and national defence may be imposed by law.
While other articles in the Constitution guarantee freedom of expression and press freedom, this one clearly states that “limited censorship” is only permissible in the event of martial law, and only in matters pertaining to public safety and national defense, which renders the current Press and Publication Law unconstitutional.
For more information about the Press and Publication Law and the state of freedom of expression online in Jordan, see 7iber’s recent post about freedom online.
In addition to 7iber’s latest efforts, a group of 22 international organizations—including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Reporters Without Borders—have called on the Jordanian government to end Internet censorship.
The Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) made news again this month, after Internet content delivery company Akamai included the group in its State of the Internet report. An analysis in the National Journal looks at the long-term effects of the SEA and groups like it.
In a rare flash of good news, blogger Razan Ghazzawi was named to BBC’s influential 100 Women list.
Another website seems to have disappeared from the Lebanese internet. After the conviction of the well-known Lebanese priest Mansour Labaki by the Vatican for child molestation, blogger Gino Raidy noted that while a website defending the priest remained online, a second site documenting his conviction and asking other victims to speak out was inaccessible. Telecommunications Minister Sehnaoui denied on LBC television that his ministry had any involvement in the blocking, saying that the judiciary went directly to ISPs to have the site blocked.
While censorship is difficult to confirm in Lebanon’s opaque and arbitrary regulatory environment, the blocked website does conform to a pattern of increased censorship in Lebanon this year. A decision issued in the spring mandated blocking online gambling sites, and many .il domains are also inaccessible.
The intimidation, interrogation, and prosecution of bloggers and online activists has also become more common, as reported in the 2013 Freedom on the Net report, which covered Lebanon for the first time this year. The report ranks Lebanon 31st globally and 3rd in the Arab world in terms of Internet freedom and clearly puts the country at a crossroads, suggesting that without government action on promised reforms, “Lebanon risks regressing into an oppressive online environment.”
Yemen is reportedly upgrading its communications infrastructure. The country, which has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in the region, seeks to bring Internet access to its many rural areas.
Iraq’s Ministry of Communication has announced a price reduction in Internet access. As a result, in a reported effort to impose sanctions on its own ISPs over their failure to follow its pricing structure, the Ministry of Communication tried—but failed—to shut down the Internet.
According to Oman’s Daily Observer, the spread of broadband in the country since 2007 is “changing the face of the country.” Over this period, the country’s Internet penetration rate has increased from 16.8% to 60%.
From our partners:
At Global Voices Advocacy, 7iber’s Reem Al Masri asks: “Why Didn’t Arab ‘Civil Society’ Discuss Human Rights at IGF?”
EFF’s Jillian York wrote a piece for Al Jazeera documenting the trend of governments—including Morocco’s—using national security as a justification for repressing online speech.
Access has announced that it will be holding its next Silicon Valley Human Rights Summit from March 3-5, 2014. Interested parties can submit sessions for consideration.
Around the region:
The Financial Times published a piece demonstrating how Syria, Iran, Israel, and Egypt use social media to distribute state propaganda.
Writing at Popehat, blogger Ken White details a year of blasphemy charges around the world. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Kuwait, and Qatar all feature heavily.
The Arab Free Press Forum will be held November 24-26 in Tunis.
A report from the Christian Science Monitor states that the Middle East is in the midst of a “Silicon Valley moment,” detailing the rise in tech entrepreneurship throughout the region.
Freedom House released its annual Freedom on the Net report, which ranks countries around the world in terms of online rights.
The Open Knowledge Foundation has published its Open Data Index, which notes that fundamental public sector data is still lacking across the region.
Digital Citizen is brought to you by Advox, Access, EFF, Social Media Exchange, 7iber.com. This month’s report was researched, edited, and written by Ellery Roberts Biddle, Jessica Dheere, Wafa Ben Hassine, Mohamad Najem, Ramsey George, Reem Al Masri, Dalia Othman, and Jillian C. York and translated into Arabic by Mohamed El Gohary.
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