Digital Citizen is a monthly review of news, policy, and research on human rights and technology in the Arab World. In this report, we look at the ongoing crisis in Iraq and how it is affecting Internet usage, as well as new developments in surveillance in Egypt and Tunisia. We also honor an imprisoned friend.
Digital Citizen contributor Katherine Maher shares a few words about imprisoned Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah.
Leading Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El Fattah is behind bars once again. Convicted of violating Egypt’s protest law and attacking a police officer, the 31-year-old was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison, along with 24 other activists, all found guilty of threatening public order.
Reporting on the case, Reuters called Alaa an “anti-Mubarak activist.” This was true, but incomplete. Alaa is an activist for social justice, dignity, and human rights; anti-Mubarak, but also anti-SCAF, anti-Morsi, and anti-Sisi. His is a voice for freedom and against abuses of power.
He is also a friend and an ally to many members of the Digital Citizen team and broader regional community.
Alaa Abd El Fattah has been jailed or investigated under every Egyptian head of state who has served during his lifetime. In 2006, he was arrested for taking part in a peaceful protest. In 2011, he spent two months in prison, missing his first child’s birth. In 2013, he was arrested and detained for 115 days without trial. Less than three months after his last release, Alaa is now facing 15 years in prison.
Alaa openly acknowledged the toll this would take on his life. In a letter to his family during his most recent detention, he wrote: “It is not only impossible to live life fully under oppression, it is also dangerous and futile to pretend one can. I can only live here as a prisoner.”
The sentences borne by Alaa and the 24 others are the longest yet in a string of crackdowns on freedom of expression, assembly, and opinion. The protest law has been used to jail other prominent activists, including outspoken human rights lawyer Mahienour El-Massry, and April 6 movement founder Ahmed Maher. This month, three Al Jazeera journalists were sentenced to seven and ten years in prison for “reporting false news.” As we edited this edition, it was reported that Alaa's 20-year-old sister, Sanaa Seif, is facing charges along with human rights lawyer Yara Sallam.
This unjust sentence deprives Alaa of his freedom. It denies his son Khaled his father, his wife Manal her husband. Along with those handed to dozens of other peaceful protesters, lawyers, and journalists, this sentence deprives Egypt of the justice and freedom it so greatly deserves.
At the Digital Citizen, we stand for human rights and freedom. We stand with Alaa and with the many Egyptians unjustly detained under this and other regimes. We call for an end to police brutality, judicial impunity, and the abuse of executive power. Join us. #FreeAlaa.
As reported last month, the Egyptian Ministry of Interior plans to formalize social media surveillance in Egypt. Writing for the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, Ramy Raoof takes on questions and debunks myths about the proposal. “Monitoring should take place over a limited period of time and focus on a specific set of issues or individuals posing a legitimate threat to safety,” he writes. Digital security expert and advocate Amr Gharbeia called the proposal “Orwellian,” stating that it would further empower the already-authoritarian state while Privacy International said the proposal would “[turn] social media in Egypt into an intelligence resource for the authorities.”
On June 17, a coalition of human rights groups and individuals filed a lawsuit in the Administrative Court to put a stop to [ar] the Ministry of Interior’s tender to procure software for social media monitoring.
The surveillance proposal is merely one piece of a broader crackdown. Three journalists with Al Jazeera English were sentenced to 15 years in jail on charges of making a “devilish pact” with the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. Prosecutors charged Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Mohammed of smearing Egypt’s reputation, aiding the Brotherhood, and falsifying footage. Another Al Jazeera journalist, Abdullah al-Shamy, was released June 17 after being imprisoned since August 2013.
Amid a security crisis, the embattled Iraqi government blocked Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. A a leaked document from the Iraqi Ministry of Telecommunications revealed that ISPs were ordered to shut down the Internet in five provinces and to block the leading social media platforms countrywide, all in an attempt to stop ISIS militants from using social media to spread propaganda.
Jillian York told the BBC: “The Iraqi government will not achieve anything by blocking social media websites…in doing so, they're cutting off a lifeline for activists and others to the outside world.” The embattled Iraqi government blocked Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Citizen Lab released a report documenting how the Internet is being controlled amidst the ISIS insurgency.
In response to the alleged kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers, a Facebook page emerged entitled “Until our boys are returned – we will kill a terrorist every hour.” The page, which is in Hebrew and displays photographs of specific individuals calling for their execution, has sparked outrage from many who believe that Facebook gives preferential treatment to users from Israel, in contrast to those from Palestine. In 2011, the company took down a page calling for a third intifada (uprising) after Israeli officials complained that it incited violence against Jewish people.
Facebook’s Community Standards state: “We remove content and may escalate to law enforcement when we perceive a genuine risk of physical harm, or a direct threat to public safety. You may not credibly threaten others, or organize acts of real-world violence…” Facebook has not commented publicly on whether the page violates their standards.
Kuwait plans to pass laws aimed at regulating the use of social media and giving authorities the power to block websites, monitor phone calls, and terminate phone lines for “security reasons.” A single tweet violating the law could send a Twitter user to jail for a year. Authorities claim these new measures will be used to combat cases of alleged blasphemy and sectarianism as well as ensure national security.
Kuwait’s Supreme Court sentenced online activist Hejab Al Hajeri to two years in jail for writing tweets that were allegedly offensive to the country’s Emir, Sheikh Sabah al Ahmad Al Sabah. The verdict came amid unrest in the region, prompting the Kuwaiti government to tighten its grip on freedom of expression. Al Hajeri is not alone however; there have been reports of several other cases such as the woman who was sentenced to 11 years in prison for remarks she made on Twitter. Al Hajeri wrote on this Twitter account after the ruling that his “determination is bigger than their jail.”
The climate is getting more dangerous for media workers in Libya. This month an editor and a journalist were killed within three days of each other. Muftah Buseid, editor of the state-owned newspaper Burniq and a vocal critic of extremist groups, was gunned down shortly after receiving a death threat. Three days after the shooting, Naseeb Miloud Karfana, a TV journalist with the state-run Libya Al-Wataniya, was found dead along with her fiancé.
Ali Anouzla, the Lakome editor facing terrorism charges for linking to a blog post that linked to a video posted by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), “continues to be targeted by the justice system seven months after his conditional release,” writes Reporters Without Borders. Anouzla was scheduled to appear in front of a judge in late May, but his hearing was postponed indefinitely, reportedly because the scheduled judge was on vacation. Lakome’s English and Arabic editions both remain blocked in the country.
Reports that authorities are targeting members of the February 20 movement—that emerged in 2011 amidst the regional uprisings—abound. Movement leaders used digital media to gain widespread attention in 2011, but faltered amid crackdowns.
El Haqed (aka I7a9ed), a rapper and icon of the movement, was arrested on May 18 and remains in detention. Visit the campaign site for his release.
Working from information leaked by Edward Snowden, the Register revealed the existence of a spy hub located on the northern coast of Oman and operated by Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).
GCHQ has three spy bases located in Oman, “where it taps into various undersea cables passing through the Strait of Hormuz into the Persian/Arabian Gulf,” the Register’s Duncan Campbell reported on June 3. These “above-top-secret” details were not known to the public until recently, due to government pressure on media organizations reporting on the Snowden files, the Register said.
Lawyer and fundamental rights defender Waleed Abu Al-Khair was charged on May 28 under the Anti-Cyber Crime Law for allegedly preparing, storing and sending information that prejudices public order and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
A report from the Committee to Protect Journalist claims that Saudi Arabia’s censorship “blurs lines between journalism [and] activism.” The Ministry of Culture has blocked local news websites that refuse to register and new anti-terrorism regulations threaten to restrict criticism of the government or Islam.
A new report from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab looks at the use of Hacking Team’s Remote Control System (RCS) by the government of Saudi Arabia as part of a broader campaign of information control.
The US Department of Commerce's Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) fined the Dubai-based arm of Aramex USD $125,000 for the unlicensed export to Syria of Internet monitoring devices and software. According to BIS, which controls the export and of US commodities, technology and software relating to national security, the Aramex fine relates to a USD $2.8 million penalty imposed last year on Dubai-based Computerlinks FZCO for similar activity. BIS said Computerlinks knew the order it placed with Blue Coat Systems was destined for end users in Syria but claimed it was for Iraq's Ministry of Telecom and the Afghan Internet service provider, Liwalnet.
Speaking to the local web magazine Webdo, Jamel Zenkri, head of the newly-established Technical Telecommunications Agency (ATT), said that ATT will start operating at full capacity between late July and early August. Zenkri added that the ATT currently has surveillance technologies at its disposal but declined to reveal where the agency obtained such equipment.
The ATT will start by monitoring the Internet, while the Interior Ministry is set to carry out phone-tapping practices. “Under the decree, phone surveillance lies in the ATT’s field of intervention,” Zenkri said. He explained that they could not carry out the decree in full until next year, due to “equipment problems”.
ATT’s creation by government decree in November 2013 raised human rights concerns among activists due to vague language and lack of independent oversight mechanisms in the law.
Ould Dada was sentenced [fr] to two years in prison for allegedly posting videos that show Algerian police officers stealing from a local shop in the region of Ghardai. Dada was accused of disseminating pictures and videos detrimental to the national interest. The videos come from a larger network of shared content on incidents of sectarian violence that played out nearby. Algerian activists released a number of videos exposing police brutality during the incidents. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information demanded that authorities release the journalist saying that, “Instead of punishing the citizen- who exercised his natural right of filing and publishing the violations- the state should rather punish the policemen involved in the theft.”
Jordan’s parliament will soon discuss a series of draft amendments to the country’s Telecommunication Law. Under the proposed amendments, Internet Service Providers would be required to block adult content while the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission would be in charge of issuing filtering orders.
“Centralizing online filtering could endow the government with a sort of “moral custodianship” over Jordanian Internet users, telling them what content they should or should not access,” said Reem Almasri, research director for the Amman-based media organization, 7iber, which declined to seek a license for their website under the new law. The 7iber site has been blocked twice in Jordan since last year.
These newly-proposed restrictions come a year after the blocking of 300 websites by the Jordanian authorities under a series of amendments to the Press and Publication Law that require news websites to register with the authorities and hold editors liable for readers’ comments.
CPJ’s Sherif Mansour wrote: “Jordan’s press freedom climate, once a shining light in the Middle East, has quickly deteriorated as journalists grapple with last year's government ban on nearly 300 news websites.”
The Bahraini crackdown on Internet users seems to be having its ups and downs. While one man was released from police custody after being incarcerated for allegedly insulting and slandering people, as well as attacking the honor and reputation of Bahraini families on social media, another man has been imprisoned for the same acts. The second man was arrested for inciting hatred towards Bahrain’s leadership and was accused of posting sectarian-tainted tweets, despite his claim that he does not have a Twitter account. He will face trial at the nation’s criminal court.
United Arab Emirates
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum launched the Arab Social Media Award, which will showcase important social media initiatives in the Arab world and promote “best practices” platforms and technologies at a ceremony to be held annually in Dubai. “[By] honoring online influencers, we stress the great value that an innovative and effective social media presence can bring,” said Sheikh Mohammad. The Award will honor individuals or organizations from government entities, the private sector, blogs, media, sports, tolerance, social service, education, youth, technology, economy, politics for their ability to communicate effectively and creativity, and for their overall impact on society.
At the recent Al Jazeera Forum held in Doha, Qatar, one panel managed to make headlines for its bold take on free speech. The panel featured young Arab comedians who use YouTube to push boundaries and tackle topics that news channels in their countries treat as taboo.
Commenting on sanctions that prevent access to vital technologies in Sudan, the Electronic Frontier Foundation says “…The Department of Treasury is unjustly preventing Sudanese from accessing information and technologies that are necessary for the advancement, innovation, and democracy of the country.” The organization is calling on the US government and US companies to take action to ease the sanctions.
A new online news platform in Sudan, Al-Tareeq, is making headlines in a country that Reporters Without Borders ranks as one of the world’s 10 worst countries for press intimidation. The platform’s journalists use encrypted communications and rely on a web server in Sweden to protect their site from attacks.
In other news…
The MIT Enterprise Startup Competition brought thirty Arab entrepreneurs to Silicon Valley in early June to meet with industry experts.
A meeting of Gulf Cooperation Council leaders resulted in an agreement [ar] among ministers for more cooperation in policing social media sites.
This summer, the Arab Digital Expression Camps program will once again help children develop a sense of self-expression and learn about technology. Learn more at their website.
Freedom of the Press Foundation is encouraging news organizations to apply for their next crowd-funding campaign to pay for an installation of SecureDrop in their newsroom.
The ninth annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) will take place September 2-5 in Istanbul, Turkey.
The Open Knowledge Festival will take place in Berlin July 15-17.
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, Hisham Almiraat, Wafa Ben Hassine, Bilal Ghalib, Salma Echahly, Katherine Maher, Mohamad Najem, Dalia Othman, Courtney Radsch, Ellery Roberts Biddle and Jillian C. York and translated into Arabic by Mohamed ElGohary and Afef Abrougui.