Digital Citizen is a monthly review of news, policy, and research on human rights and technology in the Arab World.
Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El Fattah was released from prison on bail in September. In June, Alaa was sentenced to 15 years in jail under Egypt’s infamous anti-protest law. Abd El Fattah has been jailed or investigated under every Egyptian head of state who has served during his lifetime.
On October 27, Alaa was once again detained along with 19 other activists, pending his retrial, which has been scheduled to take place on November 11. His sister, Sanaa Seif, also remains in prison. Their mother, Laila Soueif, and sister, Mona Seif, have commenced a dry hunger strike until they are released.
On September 1, an Algerian court confirmed Youcef Ould Dada’s two-year jail sentence for posting a video that shows police officers committing a robbery during violent unrest in the town of Guerrara. He was also ordered to pay a fine of 100.000 Algerian Dinars. Ould Dada was convicted of “making available to the public content that is likely to harm national interest” and “affront to a constitutional body” under articles 96 and 146 of the Algerian Penal Code.
Bahrain has been tightening its grip on freedom of expression by revoking the citizenship of activists and pro-democracy campaigners. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) stated that the tactic “is used to deprive [activists] of their right to freedom of expression and to form peaceful gatherings to claim self-determination.”
Ghada Jamsheer, President of the Women's Petition Committee (WPC), was arrested on defamation charges related to comments she made on Twitter about corruption at King Hamad University Hospital. Jamsheer's blog has been blocked in Bahrain since at least 2009.
Prominent human rights activist Maryam Al-Khawaja is awaiting trial after being released from prison on Sept. 18. Al-Khawaja was arrested on Aug. 30 when she traveled to Bahrain from Denmark, where she currently resides, to visit her jailed father, prominent human rights activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja.
A Bahraini court upheld five-year jail terms for nine persons including photographer Hussain Hubail and activist Jassim al-Nuaimi for promoting the overthrow of the regime “through illegal means via media and social networks.”
In mid-September, BuzzFeed published an exclusive report claiming that See Egypt, a sister company of the U.S.-based Blue Coat, has begun monitoring Egyptians’ online communications “on an unprecedented scale.”
Following BuzzFeed’s report, the Egyptian Ministry of Interior denied that it had signed a contract with SEE Egypt to monitor social media. At the same time, BlueCoat issued a statement distancing itself from SEE Egypt and denying that it is reselling surveillance products to the Egyptian government.
“SEE Egypt is a Blue Coat reseller, but is not otherwise affiliated with Blue Coat,” the company said in a statement provided to Mashable. “See Egypt has assured us that they have not bid or resold Blue Coat products to the Egyptian government for any social network monitoring operation.”
The blog a paper bird provides additional insight into Egypt’s surveillance apparatus, while another article from Egyptian lawyer Ahmed Ezzat claims that “by implementing this mass surveillance project, the Egyptian government is not only violating Egyptian laws concerning privacy, it is actually violating the Constitution itself.”
Activist Mahienour El-Masry was released from prison in September after spending 125 days in jail for taking part in a protest.
An administrative court announced that it will hear a lawsuit to ban Facebook and Twitter because they are not registered in Egypt.
In September, it was reported that the NSA assisted Israel’s military intelligence in collecting information on Palestinians to be used for blackmail and political persecution. The NSA has always worked closely with Unit 8200, Israel’s intelligence unit specializing in signals intelligence (SIGINT).
In response to the news, 43 veterans of Unit 8200 have decided to step down. Agents interviewed by the Guardian disclosed disturbing information about targeting “innocent people unconnected to any military activity.” Agents were explicitly asked to retain any embarrassing and extremely personal information that could be used to blackmail subjects in the future.
Palestinian Intelligence Services arrested Mujahed Al-Sa’di and Bara’ Al-Qadi for their social media related activities. Al-Sa’di, a producer at Filisteen Al-Yaum TV, was arrested by the Palestinian Intelligence Services on September 19 before being released the following day. He told the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) that he was arrested for insulting and accusing a Fatah member of treason on Facebook.
Social media activist Mahmoud Al Qadi, the head of Birzeit University Media Club was arrested on September 14. He is accused of defaming the public authority in posts he published on social networking sites and websites such as Al-Quds and Wattan.
Kuwaiti blogger Mohammed Al-Ajmi, better known by the blog name of Abo3asam, was released on Sept. 4 after being held for a week. He was however charged with blasphemy over a tweet dating back to August 11 and he is pending trial. In the tweet, Al-Ajmi criticized the Salafist group Al-Jamiya and accused its members of blindly following its religious leader, Hamad al-Uthman.
Authorities in Kuwait issued an arrest warrant for novelist Rania al-Saad. The warrant was issued after the Kuwaiti Ministry of Foreign Affairs filed a report against the novelist accusing her of “insulting Saudi Arabia” on Twitter.
Blogger Ralph Aoun posted a leaked government document proving that Lebanon blocked 6 porn websites. The sites were blocked without due process or transparency, and reflected a lack of understanding of the difference between consensual adult pornography and child sexual abuse imagery. Several Lebanese bloggers, including Mustapha Hamoui, expressed frustration with the lack of due process in the government’s decision.
Eighteen-year-old Benghazi blogger and journalist Tawfiq Bensaud was shot dead on Sept. 19, along with 17-year-old activist Sami Al-Kawafi. IBTimes described Bensaud as “one of Libya’s most prominent voices calling for a civil movement.” According to Reporters Without Borders, Bensaud had been receiving death threats for the preceding two months from the “Shura Council of the Benghazi Revolutionaries,” a coalition of radical Islamist militias, which had reportedly compiled a list of journalists and activists to be assassinated that included the young blogger.
On Sept. 15, a new cybercrime law went into force despite assertions by the prime minister last year that the proposed law would not restrict freedom of expression. Law 14/2014 contains broad, restrictive provisions that threaten freedom of expression and the press, which are ostensibly protected in the Qatari constitution. The bill threatens prison sentences and levees significant fines on those convicted of spreading false news.
A Saudi court of appeal upheld Raif Badawi’s conviction of “insulting Islam” and confirmed a 10-year prison sentence issued by the Jeddah Criminal Court on May 7. Founder of “Saudi Liberals,” a website discussing the role of religion in the conservative kingdom, Badawi was also sentenced to 1000 lashes. According to Badawi’s wife Ensaf Haidar, Saudi authorities may soon implement the lashing verdict against her husband.
The Saudi Interior Ministry forced human rights defender and blogger Mikhlif Al-Shammari to shut down his Twitter account. According to the Gulf Center for Human Rights, authorities summoned Al-Shammari and forced him to sign a pledge to shut down his Twitter account.
Some courses on the online education platform Coursera are now accessible for Sudan residents after the online educational course provider recently obtained a license from the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) granting them permission to offer courses in Sudan and Cuba. The OFAC license prohibits Coursera from offering certain advanced courses in science, technology, engineering and math.
On Sept. 18, Nuba Reports, a news website covering the Sudanese war-torn states of South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur suffered “a massive DDoS attack” shortly after the screening of a documentary film on Khartoum’s war on Sudan at the 7th meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Authorities arrested pro-Assad activist Mudar Khadur after he launched a social media campaign calling for information on the fate of soldiers at three military bases overrun by militants by the violent extremist group known as ISIS in July and August of 2014. Khadur launched the “Eagles of Tabqa Military Airport” and #Waynun (Where are they) campaigns, both of which directly criticized defense minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij.
Tunisia’s telecom industry regulator, the National Instance of Telecommunications (INT) denied plans to block VoIP services. The statement was issued in response to media reports suggesting that VoIP services like Skype and Viber would soon be blocked for 3G users, but would remain accessible for customers who subscribe to forthcoming special packages that do not restrict the use of VoIP.
In a separate statement (link in Arabic), the Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies hinted that such a move would violate the principle of network neutrality guaranteed under Article 26 of the Telecommunications Law.
Tunisia’s three main mobile providers (link in French) will soon stop offering the free service Facebook Zero. Many Tunisians who cannot afford smartphones or 3G subscriptions access the largest networking site through this service that groups like Access and EFF have said violate the principles of net neutrality. The plans are yet to be approved by the INT.
On Sept. 23, three members of the collective blog Nawaat—including its co-founder Sami Ben Gharbia—were briefly apprehended for “unauthorized filming”, as they were covering the trial of a comedian in the northernmost city of Bizerte.
Jabeur Mejri, a blogger who was jailed in 2012 for posting prophet Muhammad cartoons on Facebook, was threatened with death (link in French) by another prisoner. Though he was released from jail in March after obtaining an amnesty from president Moncef Marzouki, Mejri was sentenced again to eight months imprisonment in April for allegedly insulting a court clerk.
United Arab Emirates
Following media reports that authorities had blocked messaging app Viber, the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority said that Viber has never been licensed in the UAE and that only two telecom operators, Etisalat and Du, are licensed to provide VOIP services.
After spending six months in pre-trial detention, human rights activist Osama Al-Najjar appeared before the State Security Court at the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi on Sept. 23 for his first hearing. Al-Najjar is charged with “belonging to a banned group”, “offending and inciting hatred against the state via social media” and “passing information to foreign organisations.” Prior to his arrest, he advocated for better prison conditions and reported about poor treatment in detention. Al-Najjar’s father is one of 94 Emiratis jailed for “attempting to overthrow the government” and is currently serving an 11-year jail sentence.
A new law on the Right of Access to Information, adopted last July, “fails to adequately recognise the right to information and threatens free expression,” according to human rights advocacy group Article 19. The group wrote that the new draft is weaker than previous versions: It abandons the establishment of an independent commission and provides for criminal penalties for anyone who makes an “incorrect” statement when requesting information, the unauthorized use or reuse of information, or for “tampering” with it once it is released.
In other news:
- New research about Internet attitudes in the Arab region focusing on privacy and safety online and attitudes towards the acceptability of online censorship may have important implications for public policy in the MENA region.
- GISWatch has released its annual report, entitled “Communications Surveillance in the Digital Age.” The report includes chapters from Digital Citizen contributors Afef Abrougui, Jillian C. York, and Access.
From our partners:
- A Global Voices exclusive report looks at the sale of targeted surveillance technology by German companies to human rights-violating countries.
- EFF has launched Surveillance Self-Defense, a “guide to defending yourself and your friends from surveillance by using secure technology and developing careful practices.” The guide is currently available in English, Arabic, and Spanish.
- SMEX re-published in Arabic its aggregation of laws in the region affecting digital rights. The group invites interested individuals from around the region to contribute.
- EFF published a piece looking at the impact of the Internet on countries where books are often banned, with a special focus on Sudan.
- The Arab Internet Governance Forum will be held in Beirut Nov. 26-27.
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, Wafa Ben Hassine, Jessica Dheere, Salma Echahly, Mohamed Najem, Dalia Othman, Courtney Radsch, Jillian C. York, and Ellery Roberts Biddle and translated into Arabic by Mohamed ElGohary.