Digital Citizen is a monthly review of news, policy, and research on human rights and technology in the Arab World. Since our last report, the arrival of a new law in Morocco and a change in leadership in Tunisia threaten to diminish online free expression. In Palestine and Saudi Arabia, the authorities remain threatened by the power of online commentary. Finally, we honor a fallen friend and colleague, and draw attention to the plight of another who sits in prison.
A special tribute to Bassem Sabry, by Mohamed El Dahshan:
On April 28, Egyptian journalist Bassem Sabry passed away. Bassem was a truly beloved figure who was a friend to many in the Digital Citizen community.
When collecting the Free Media Pioneer Award in Johannesburg along with a team of Al-Monitor journalists, a few weeks before his passing, Bassem Sabry gave an interview defending online and citizen journalists against the tyranny of policing and punishments wielded, under various and diverse accusations, against writers. He highlighted the way in which policing had extended from governments to the segments of public who, made uncomfortable by different opinions, are willing to take up arms, digital or otherwise, against free expression and dissenting writers.
Bassem was himself often on the receiving end of such attacks, but they seemed to barely affect him. Such was his conviction—and his grace. A filmmaker turned writer and columnist, a concerned “Arab Citizen”—the name of his main blog—who chose to involve himself in the glory-less world of political planning, he rapidly built a network across Egypt and the Arab world, but more importantly across groups and classes.
He was equally at ease among key revolutionaries as he was on the street or navigating tortuous organized politics, and to all he was honest, and gave his undivided attention. The more the cacophony rose and the chaos overtook, he always took the time to listen and analyse, making him one of the most trusted and respected writers and advisers of his generation. His friends enjoyed the additional bliss of his humour—quite good actually, not horrible as he described it—always endearing. He always had a sympathetic ear and good advice.
Exceptional writers leave a body of work, analysis, articles, on paper and pixels. Exceptional people leave an intangible legacy, this time etched on minds and hearts. Bassem left both. Those of us blessed to have known him personally will cherish his lessons, spoken and otherwise—what he taught us simply by being him.
Bassem was always tolerant of different, sometimes opposing, ideas. When others panicked at incomprehensible short term developments, he chose the farsighted analysis, and he always made time and room for friends like it was the only thing that mattered in the world.
As we reconcile ourselves with the grief of his loss, a grief, both personal and collective, for what good he could have done, I have found that asking myself what would Bassem Sabry do (or WWBSD, yes) in this or that situation to be good advice. Perhaps Bassem would have approved, with no mild embarrassment, being a mentor of sorts, for the many who miss him dearly. I like to think he would have laughed.
Following the presidential re-election on April 17, bloggers and digital activists in Algeria are reportedly facing new threats. Throughout the electoral campaign, which began in March and which was plagued with allegations of fraud, individuals advocating for democratic elections were subjected to defamation and police aggression. The leadership of the Barakat! Movement, an activist group that utilizes digital media for organizing, were among those targeted, its rallies broken up by police.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights released a report for World Press Freedom Day, which is observed on May 3. The report expressed serious concern about the atmosphere of degenerating freedom of expression and opinion for members of the media.
The annual Best of Online Activism, or BOBs awards, are the holy grail for bloggers. This year, the 23-year-old Egyptian photoblogger, Mosa’ab Elshamy, was awarded the BOBs’ highest honor for his powerful photographs of the ongoing Egyptian revolution. Elshamy said he was honored to receive the award, stating: “The BOBs have shown for many years what people are doing behind the scenes.” Elshamy was not the country’s only winner: Qoll, a website that aggregates opinion posts from Egypt, won the User’s Choice award for Best Arabic Website.
Two types of proceedings threaten digital freedom in Egypt, according to a new report from The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression: appeals filed by citizens and appeals filed by the Ministry of Interior. The report, issued to coincide with World Press Freedom Day, found 2013 to be the worst year in the last five years for free expression in the country.
Egypt’s Ministry of Interior has issued a call for bids [ar] from companies to conduct public surveillance of social networks in the country. Among the project’s objectives is the monitoring of networks for terminology and vocabulary that is “contrary to law or public morality or beyond the scope of custom and community standards.” A report from Mada Masr quoted ICT consultant Ahmad Gharbeia as saying: “It is clear the ministry is investing more in this new instrument and is going for a more complicated surveillance system.” Ramy Raoof has also written a piece explaining the Ministry’s call.
Analyst Mohamed El Dahshan has published an analysis of social media and activism in Egypt. Noting that the number of users has been on the rise since the 2011 uprising, El Dahshan argues that use of social media has reached different echelons of society, resulting in a space where online and offline discussions and debates have become intertwined.
Jabeur Mejri, a young man who was jailed previously for posting “blasphemous” content to Facebook, has been imprisoned once again. In April, a court sentenced him to an eight-month jail term for insulting a court clerk [fr]. Mejri previously spent two years in jail before his release in early March.
On April 24, the Tunisian Pirate Party lodged [ar] a complaint at the Administrative Court to suspend the activities of the Technical Telecommunications Agency (ATT). Established by decree 4506 dating November 12, 2013, the ATT is tasked with providing “technical support to judicial investigations into ICT-related crimes.” Despite concerns about the potential for mass surveillance, the government moved to appoint a head of the new agency in March.
Reporters Without Borders has expressed concern that Libya’s new constitution fails to include guarantees of freedom of information, opinion, association and expression and all other fundamental rights, and has stated that it “must be drafted in consultation with civil society and in accordance with Libya’s international obligations.”
In a separate report, the media watchdog stated that freedom of information in the country is under attack, citing the attempted murder of a television correspondent.
Last year, Internet services in Syria experienced numerous interruptions. Although access has since returned to areas under regime control, Internet connectivity in Syria is plagued by intermittent service. The Internet is nevertheless subject to censorship and surveillance.
Computer engineer and open source advocate Bassel (Safadi) Khartabil, who was detained and imprisoned on March 15, 2012, celebrated his 33rd birthday in prison. Several organizations—including EFF, Creative Commons, and Global Voices Advocacy—used the occasion to honor Bassel and draw attention to his plight.
Israeli police interrogated and placed Palestinian activist Ghassan Munair under house arrest for a Facebook post in which he criticized the Israeli government’s plans to enlist Christian Arabs in the army. Far from inciting violence, the post read:
For the sake of freedom of speech and transparency
The faces and names of the “honorable” who appear
in the following photos are the same ones who want to enlist your sons
against your people – remember this
According to 972mag, Munair’s detention is “the latest in what appears to be a crackdown on Palestinians expressing dissent on the Internet.” Similar cases over the past few years have seen Palestinians detained by the Israeli authorities for Facebook and Twitter posts.
We would also like to offer special congratulations to our friends at Visualizing Palestine, who took home the BOBs award in the Best Social Activism category, for their efforts in illustrating injustice in Palestine.
A draft decree [PDF, ar] issued on May 13 and posted to a government website has raised concerns among Internet users. The text suggests a transfer of prerogatives from the government and the national telecommunications regulatory body (ANRT) to National Defense. The decree provides the military and secret services with the power to manage user data and regulate electronic certification. If the decree is approved by the Moroccan government, it could mark a dangerous setback; the management of user data by intelligence users without transparent oversight could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.
Two Kuwaiti Newspapers have been suspended for defying a two month-long ban on coverage of an alleged coup in the country. Al-Watan [ar] and Alam Al-Yaoum were ordered to suspend their operations for two weeks based on an April 20 decision by the Public Prosecutor's office. The case started in December when a Twitter user claimed that Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahd Al Sabah was in possession of an audio tape containing sensitive information about both Sheikh Nasser Al Mohammad Al Ahmad Al Sabah—the former Kuwaiti premier—and Jassem Al Khorafi, former speaker of the Kuwaiti National Assembly. Shaikh Fahd Al Sabah denies the existence of such a tape, though he admitted that he had received “scattered recordings” on other local issues. The Twitter user was detained for a few days before being released.
Some positive developments this month for Lebanon’s depressingly costly and slow Internet connectivity, as Lebanon’s new Minister of Telecommunication, Boutros Harb, is pushing for the implementation of Law 431, passed in 2002. If implemented, Law 431 would allow for free competition among private telecoms providers. Furthermore, in late May, Harb unveiled Lebanon’s first unlimited broadband plan, which reduced prices and increased the speed of existing DSL plans. Harb has also canceled the obligatory registration for mobile electronic devices—the International Mobile Station Equipment Identity, or IMEI—which will likely decrease the prices of smartphones.
As Internet penetration grows in Lebanon, privacy has not been a top priority for the state-owned ISPs and telecoms. Recently the cabinet was granted access to the data of more than four million subscribers, which it then handed over to the Internal Security Forces. It was a simple process, as the government owns both mobile operators, Alfa and Touch. Prior to that, according to a report from Al Akhbar, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) was granted complete access to telecoms data.
All in all, privacy in Lebanon is suffering. Digital Citizen’s Mohamad Najem shared his thoughts on the inefficacy of the Lebanese government in protecting its citizens’ privacy in the New America Foundation’s Weekly Wonk blog.
Press freedom, already at an all-time low in Sudan, was dealt another blow after a Sudanese general threatened journalists with “a decisive battle” if they crossed what he termed “journalistic red lines.” In his statement, General Alsir said to journalists: “You do nothing other than write news and negative reporting about the State and you will have to bear the consequences of your actions in the coming period.”
The Press and Publications department has banned the publication of at least two novels this month, one based on the story of the 1987 official crackdown on Jordanian student activists at Yarmouk University. As the Press and Publications law of 2012 states that such bans must be mandated by a court order, the author has declared his intention to sue the department.
From Amman, journalists from around the Arab world have issued a call “for those committing violations against media personnel to be prosecuted and for laws that hamper journalists from practising their profession to be rescinded.” The declaration came at the conclusion of the 3rd Forum of Media Freedom Defenders in the Arab World.
Saudi Arabia is the biggest consumer of YouTube content in the world and in April the General Commission for Audiovisual Media announced that it will start monitoring YouTube content. The announcement came shortly after a new anti-terrorism law was introduced that included the vague and broad provisions typical of laws that enable authorities to harass and silence activists and journalists, including bloggers. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, this is part of a “two-pronged strategy” to make government censorship apply to all platforms and ensure that authorities can use “vague regulations”.
In the last month the judiciary in Saudi Arabia has continued to hand heavy prison sentences to bloggers and activists. Some recent examples:
Blogger Fadel Al-Manasif received a 15-year term for his involvement in protests
Journalist Mansoor Almzhm was briefly imprisoned and fined for his tweets
Jalal Mohamed al-Jamal, a website manager, was sentenced to five years in prison for covering pro-reform demonstrations in the Eastern Province
Three Jeddah men were sentenced for online activities, among them Raif Badawi, founder of the “Free Saudi Liberals” website
United Arab Emirates
The Emirates’ Telecommunications Regulatory Authority has released a set of guidelines that warns Facebook users to exercise caution when posting information about other people. The guidelines, based on the UAE’s privacy law, which are similar to Facebook’s own terms of service, suggest that users should not tag other users without consent.
In other news:
Al Arabiya reports that use of VPN services is on the rise in several Arab countries. The article cites intellectual property concerns, pornography, and politics as the causes.
Lebanese coder Ramsey Nasser has published an account of his efforts to illustrate what code would look like if written in Arabic instead of English.
An app, iNakba, seeks to generate interest and greater understanding of the Nakba by mapping villages from which Palestinians fled or were expelled in 1948.
Habib Battah takes us on a walk through the Middle East’s startup scene.
Digital Citizen contributor Dalia Othman presented her early research on social media in the Arab post-revolutionary context.
From our partners:
EFF describes how LGBT communities throughout the Arab world face unique threats on the Internet.
SMEX has published a list of those detained in Lebanon for speech.
7iber looks at Jordan’s new anti-terrorism law, tackling the questionable dichotomy of security vs. speech.
SMEX has begun analysis of laws governing speech across the Arab world.
The annual Internet Governance Forum will take place in Istanbul September 2-5.
The Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum will be held in Bonn, Germany June 30-July 2.
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 Afef Abrougui, Reem Almasri, Hisham Almiraat, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Jamila Brown, Jessica Dheere, Bilal Ghalib, Mohamad Najem, Dalia Othman, Courtney Radsch, Mohammad Tarakiyee, and Jillian C. York and translated into Arabic by Afef Abrougui and Mohamed ElGohary.