Digital Citizen is a monthly review of news, policy, and research on human rights and technology in the Arab World.
Leading Bahraini human rights defender Maryam Alkhawaja was detained on August 30 upon landing in the island kingdom to visit her ailing imprisoned father, also a prominent rights advocate, who had begun a hunger strike the week prior. In a piece for The Guardian, journalist Sara Yasin wrote of her friend:
At 26, Maryam is the sort of woman that dictators have nightmares about: she is one of the most prominent voices condemning Bahrain’s ongoing human rights violations, which have only continued in the years following a brutal crackdown on popular protests in February 2011.
Following her detention, Alkhawaja—a dual Danish-Bahraini citizen—had her passport confiscated. On September 6, it was reported that her detention had been extended for an additional ten days for further investigation.
In July, the anonymous owner of the Twitter account @Takrooz was detained by Bahraini authorities on charges of “inciting hatred against the regime” and “using expressions that incite sectarianism.” Bahrain News Watch reported that @Takrooz was a frequent target of the Bahraini Cyber Crime Unit, which sent him malicious links.
Documents leaked in early August by the anonymous Twitter account @GammaGroupPR have confirmed previously-made allegations that the Bahraini government is using FinFisher spyware sold by Gamma International—a German-British surveillance company—to spy on activists and politicians. According to the same documents, the Bahraini government spied on two members of its own fact-finding commission put in place to investigate human rights violations.
A new telecommunications law approved last May calls for the creation of a Commission for Mass Communications and Information Technology that will be tasked with granting (and rescinding) operating licenses to telecom companies and monitoring social media content. The law also gives unspecified “competent authorities” the right to suspend service for reasons of “national security.”
Communication Law 37/2014 further prescribes harsh prison sentences for users who create or send messages that are “immoral” or “harm public order”, but also holds communication service providers liable for the dissemination of such messages. Human Rights Watch slammed the law, charging that it appeared as if it had been “designed to give prosecuting authorities even wider legal authorization for violating Kuwaitis’ right to free speech.”
These legal restrictions come as Kuwait continues to target social media commenters and users for expressing themselves online. On August 26, authorities detained satirist and human rights activist Abo Asam for posting a tweet “in contempt of religion.” According to Al Jazeera English, twenty-four year-old Hamad al-Naqi was also convicted of insulting Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, as well as spreading false information that was deemed to have tarnished Kuwait's image abroad.
On September 15, Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah was released from prison on bail following a ruling by the Cairo Criminal Court. Abd El Fattah was sentenced in June to 15 years imprisonment for allegedly violating the country's controversial anti-protest laws. Two weeks after his sentencing, Alaa’s sister, Sanaa Seif, was one of 23 activists arrested for protesting against the restrictions on protests.
The presiding judge recused himself from Abd El Fattah’s case after an incident in early September, in which the prosecution presented a video depicting Manal Hassan, Abd El Fattah’s wife, dancing. Taken from Hassan’s laptop, which confiscated by police when Abd El Fattah was arrested and taken from his family’s home in November of 2013, the video bore no discernible relationship with his political activities. In another twist on September 15, the judge ordered that the aforementioned video be presented to the prosecutor general and placed under investigation for violating Abd El Fattah's privacy.
In August, the Media Legal Defence Initiative and Electronic Frontier Foundation petitioned the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to take all necessary steps to secure his immediate release. On August 26, after visiting his ailing father—renowned human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif—in the hospital, Abd El Fattah announced that he would be going on hunger strike. Seif passed away three days later. Shortly thereafter, other members of the extended family announced they too would be going on hunger strike. The “Down With Egypt’s Protest Laws” Tumblr has been set up to serve as a platform for disseminating information related to the draconian protest law, which requires demonstrators to obtain state permission prior to convening for protest.
An Egyptian Coptic youth was arrested on June 24 for defaming Islam on social media. The court of Armant sentenced the 19-year-old defendant, Kirolos Shawqy Attalah to six years in prison, along with a fine of LE6,000 ($US840) for posting photos that defame Islam on his Facebook page. The court sentenced Attalah to three years for “contempt of religion” and another three for “stirring up sectarian strife.” The verdict comes amidst increasing tensions of sectarian strife that have caused disorder in the town of Armant. Reports mentioned that angry assailants threw stones at Attalah’s home, while some shops owned by Coptic Christians were also targeted in attacks. Attalah’s lawyers may seek to overturn the verdict and ask for a reduced sentence. A report from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights states that 27 defendants were convicted on charges of defaming religion between 2011 and 2013.
Culture and social blog Cairo Scene revealed that Egyptian authorities are targeting the country's LGBT community using dating applications like Grindr, in parallel with a recent crackdown that has resulted in the arrests of hundreds of gay and lesbian Egyptians in recent months. The website Gay Egypt warned users to avoid posting personal information or pictures on applications these sites. For its own part, Grindr advised users to be “extremely careful”. A spokesman told users, “remember, we are gay and we are in Egypt.”
Dar-al-ifta, Egypt’s primary authority responsible for issuing religious edicts, has issued a fatwa (religious edict) prohibiting chats between men and women “who are foreign to each other” except in “cases of necessity.” The edict also prohibits women from sending photos to people they don’t know.
Data scientist Tarek Amr has developed a quick guide on how to bypass the effects of Egypt’s proposed plan to ramp up digital surveillance. The guide suggests innovative ways of making it harder for Egyptian authorities to understand publicly posted content.
The Moroccan government recently approved Law 31-13, which establishes a set of standards governing access to public information. The law was adopted in accordance with chapter 27 of the 2011 constitution, which classifies access to information “within the essential rights and freedoms that ought to be respected.” Speech rights advocacy groups including Article19 have criticized the law, saying that it does not provide an adequate framework to fulfill its intended purpose and that its definition of public data is too narrow. Media freedom advocates also have pointed out that the government’s progress on the issue (albeit three years late) appears suspect, given the steady decline in rights protections for journalists that the country has seen for over a year.
Egypt yielded to pressure from Iraq’s Maliki government and closed down three Egypt-based Iraqi TV stations, Al-Baghdadiya, Al-Rafidin, and Al-Hadath. The Iraqi communications ministry filed a complaint to the Egyptian production company hosting the TV stations and accused them of broadcasting reports that “attack the security forces and Iraqi national unity.” On June 16, plain-clothes Iraqi security forces raided Al-Baghdadiya’s TV studios and used violence against the station’s security guards.
The shutdowns come amidst turmoil in Iraq that has endangered on freedom of speech online and offline. Journalists and social media users have been the victims of increased intolerance and censorship. The Iraqi government has already shut down access to most social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook as well as WhatsApp, Instagram and Youtube in order to keep extremist Sunnis from building support online. A Citizen Lab report looks at the extent of current Iraqi information controls.
In the wake of advancements from the Islamic State (IS)—which has been savvy in its use of social media—US-based social networks such as Twitter and Facebook have struggled with whether to censor graphic content. While in some cases the social networks have chosen to suspend accounts, such regulation has been inconsistent at times. In a piece for Slate, Digital Citizen contributor Jillian York asks if censoring the group online could backfire.
The Jordanian government tightened its grip on online content this summer. While still issuing blocking orders for websites that fail to get licensed, it also announced plans to begin monitoring online comments supporting the military group ISIS and persecuting its supporters under a new anti-terrorism law. On the other hand, the government has started holding websites accountable for users’ comments according to the 2012 amendments of Press and Publication law. One website owner was fined for publishing false news through users comments, which were considered part of the article, according to the law.
Digital Citizen partner organization 7iber reports that they are “reeling from the latest attempt to silence us.” After their website was first blocked in 2013, the organization found novel ways to get around the ban, including posting full stories to Facebook. In August, after 7iber.org was blocked, the group switched to 7iber.me, which was summarily blocked as well, “clearly signalling that [their] approach of bypassing censorship by switching domains can no longer work.” In their report summarizing the most recent censorship, 7iber also explains why they have not applied for a license and explains that they are “still looking for solutions.”
Resistance Brigades, an armed group affiliated with Hezbollah, attacked Abdel Basset Turjuman, owner of the news website Saida Gate near his home on July 3. According to a statement by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, Turjman was “severely beaten, verbally assaulted, and threatened with sexual abuse,” over the publication of articles critical of the Brigades on Saida Gate.
In a Facebook post, the Lebanese LGBT rights group Helem warned that police are using WhatsApp to target the country’s gay community. According to Helem, police are “summoning contacts from detainees based on their WhatsApp conversations to go down to the police station for questioning.”
After spending roughly a month behind bars, bloggers Noah Saad and Muawiyah Al-Rawahi were released by Omani authorities. They were arrested on July 12 for their online reporting of human rights violations. After Al-Rawahi's arrest, a photo published on Twitter showed him being held at the psychiatric department of Sultan Qaboos University Hospital.
According to Reporters Without Borders, Al-Rawahi was arrested in connection to a blog post he posted a day before his arrest, in which he described “the persecution of activists and bloggers and the repressive methods used by the Omani security apparatus.” He is known for discussing atheism and criticising Sultan Qaboos on his blog and YouTube channel. No official reason had been given for the arrest of Saad, who was previously detained in September 2012 for criticizing Omani authorities on his blog. Saad was released on August 7 without charge.
Later in August, human rights defender and blogger Mohammed Al-Fazari was arrested and detained for a few days before being released without charge on September 4. According to the Gulf Center for Human Rights, Al-Fazari was summoned by the the General Directorate of Inquiries and Criminal Investigations of the Oman Police in Muscat to discuss “a personal matter.” Al-Fazari, who is the founder and editor of of the online magazine Citizen, was imprisoned in 2012 for illegal assembly, disturbing public order, and violating the cyber-crime law.
This summer’s incursion by Israeli forces in Gaza has resulted in the arrests of scores of Palestinian citizens of Israel. In one case, Rafat Awaisha, a 20-year-old from the south of the country, was arrested after calling on Facebook for demonstrations. He was released on bail on July 3.
Reporters Without Borders—which issued a special report on Palestinian journalists amidst the conflict—concluded that Israeli forces were deliberately attacking news professionals at the height of the conflict. Numerous journalists and media outlets were targets. On June 22, Israeli forces raided the offices of two printing companies in the city of Ramallah: Turbo Computers and Software Co. Ltd and Jeel Publishing Co. Ltd., which publish, respectively, the Palestinian cultural magazine This Week in Palestine and the monthly Filistin Ashabab. Seven computers were seized, dealing a serious blow to the printing of the two magazines.
The attacks taking place on the ground were paralleled by incitement taking place online. In a scathing report published by Global Voices, Dalia Othman alleges that Facebook has been lax about regulating incitement to violence aimed at Palestinians.
Saudi Arabia’s government is alleged to have surveillance software that is intended to target individuals in Qatif, in eastern Saudi Arabia. Qatif has been the location of protests and peaceful dissent that the government condemns. Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemns the government’s crackdown on privacy and freedom of speech and claims that “authorities may now be hacking into mobile phones, turning digital tools into just another way for the government to intimidate and silence independent voices.” The surveillance software is an altered version of an app that provides mobile news in Arabic. This altered version, if installed on a mobile phone, infects the phone with spyware made by the Italian firm Hacking Team.
Hacking Team states that it only sells its products to governments and markets its products for “lawful intercept”. The company told Human Rights Watch that it would suspend technical support for its products for any customer it believed was misusing the technology, yet no official actions have been taken to address this issue.
The NSA expanded its cooperation with Saudi Arabia, according to a report by the Intercept. The report, based on a document leaked by Edward Snowden, shows that the NSA has been providing technical and analytical assistance to Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior. This included highly advanced surveillance technology, despite the US government’s recognition of extensive human rights abuses and torture of activists in the Gulf nation.
A Saudi judge was put on trial for posting tweets of “religious and preaching content,” the Arabic news site aleqt.com reported on July 8. According to a source quoted by Aleqt, the judge violated a royal decree issued on April 16, 2012, which bans judges from “media appearances, talks and participation.”
Lawyer and human rights defender Waleed Abu Al-Khair—who founded the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (MHRSA)—was sentenced to 15 years in prison on July 6. He was arrested in April on charges of “preparing, storing and transmitting information that undermines public order;” inciting rebellion; “publishing false information with the aim of harming the state”; contempt of court; and “creating an NGO without permission.”
The initial five-year jail term of human rights activist Mukhlif Al-Shammari was upheld on appeal. He was convicted in connection with the many articles he has written and, in particular, a video he posted on YouTube in which two girls described being mistreated, Reporters Without Borders said.
A Gulf Center for Human Rights report published in partnership with Global Voices in July shows seven cases proving that “online activism is under siege in Saudi Arabia.”
On June 17, authorities in Syria blocked local site Syria News. The move came after the National Media Council issued an order requiring media sites in Syria to abide by the media law and register with authorities.
In more positive news, a report from media researchers Enrico de Angelis, Donatella della Ratta, and Yazan Badran demonstrates that despite the odds, media is flourishing in Syria. The researchers found more than 93 online and broadcast radio stations focused on Syria, a stark contrast from the “media desert” that existed prior to the start of the conflict in 2011.
In an in-depth interview with veteran security journalist James Bamford in the August edition of Wired, Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA was responsible for a 2012 Internet outage in Syria. An NSA hacker attempted but failed to install an exploit in one of the core routers of a major Internet service provider in Syria, rendering the router inoperable. At the time, the broad consensus among advocates was that the Syrian government — not the US — was to blame for the near-total blackout.
Vague provisions contained within the leaked cybercrime draft law have begun to threaten user rights and strides achieved by Tunisia in the field of internet freedom over the past three years. The bill has not been submitted to the constituent assembly yet, but has nonetheless raised concerns.
Under Article 24 of the bill, anyone who spreads content “showing obscene acts and assaulting good morals” is subject to six months’ imprisonment. The punishment increases to a three-year jail term if the content in question “incites to immorality.” Publication of content that “damages others’ reputation or prejudice[s] their esteem” is punishable by six years in prison. In addition, hacking activities are punishable by six years in jails and a fine of fifty-thousand Tunisian dinars.
On July 25, the interior ministry announced the arrest of a Facebook page administrator and confiscated his computer. The ministry said that the arrested Facebook user:
adopts and spreads Takfiri Salafi-jihadist ideology” and that the page had previously posted comments “that glorify terrorism” and that it “rejected State institutions.
The arrest came one week after armed Islamist groups waged deadly attacks on Tunisian armed forces leaving fifteen soldiers dead. Following the attack, the government ordered the ICT ministry to “take the necessary precautions to confront social media pages inciting violence and terrorism,” while Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou reiterated his calls for the filtering and monitoring of the Internet.
In August, six more users were arrested for “inciting terrorist acts on social networking sites,” the ministry announced on its Facebook page.
Tunisia’s electoral commission [ISIE] announced on July 10 that remote voter registration had been briefly disrupted by hackers. The commission specified that the attacks disrupted registration via SMS and the commission’s online registration platform. Voter registration processes at physical offices were not affected.
United Arab Emirates
The UAE's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) published white papers on the use of a number of social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and LinkedIn. These “awareness documents,” as described by TRA, “are designed specifically to highlight the terms and conditions of the most popular social networks in use in the United Arab Emirates.”
The UAE has moved to adopt new amendments to its anti-terrorism law providing a death sentence for those found guilty of “terror-related crimes,” such as “attacking and threatening UAE rulers” and “conspiring against the state and government.”
In other news…
- A June resolution from the UN Human Rights Council reaffirms that the human rights people enjoy offline, also apply online, including the right to freedom of expression.
- A study by Middle Eastern firm EMC found that Internet users in the Middle East are “more willing to compromise online security for greater convenience than almost anywhere else in the world.”
- The Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government has released its sixth annual Arab Social Media Report [PDF].
- Citizen Evidence Lab, an innovative resource from Amnesty International, provides authentication techniques for human rights researchers.
- Global Information Society Watch 2014 includes a chapter by noted Bahraini activist Ali Abdulemam entitled “The struggle of online activists against surveillance technology.”
From our partners:
- The Digital Defenders Partnership (which includes Global Voices and the EFF) has launched a Digital First Aid Kit to help people identify and address digital threats.
- 7iber reports on the Tunisian Pirate Party, embattled blogger Azyz Amami, and intellectual property.
- A 7iber report [ar] looks at Israeli surveillance in Gaza.
- Digital Citizen contributor Jillian York and project co-founder Ramzi Jaber received a Knight News Challenge award for their project, OnlineCensorship.org, which crowdsources instances of censorship on social networks.
- The Arab Internet Governance Forum will take place in Beirut November 26-27.
- 4M will hold a forum in Beirut on social media October 17-19.
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, Ellery Biddle, Jamila Brown, Jessica Dheere, Salma Echahly, Mohamed ElGohary, Bilal Ghalib, Mohamed Najem, Dalia Othman, Courtney Radsch, Jillian C. York, and translated into Arabic by Mohamed ElGohary and Afef Abrougui.