Digital Citizen is a biweekly review of news, policy, and research on human rights and technology in the Arab World.
We begin this report in Yemen, where on 26 March, state-owned Yemen Net, the largest internet service provider in the country, blocked several news websites critical of the Houthi rebels, who are now in control of the capital Sana’a and government offices, including the ministry of communications and information. The blocked websites include news sites like Mareb Press and Yemen Press who have been reporting on rights violations committed by the Houthis, such as arbitrary arrests and attacks against media workers and journalists. The search engine site Sahafa Net was also blocked. The blocking came as a Saudi Arabia–led coalition waged a military campaign on Houthi positions.
Walid Al-Saqaf, president of ISOC-Yemen, described the blocking as similar to what took place between 2005 and 2011, under former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, only now it includes websites critical of the Houthis. The Yemeni chapter of the Internet Society condemned the blocking stressing that “the current turmoil in Yemen should not be used as a pretext to tamper with accessing the Internet, which should remain open for all users to use without restrictions”.
Following the attack by gunmen at the Bardo Museum in Tunis on 18 March that resulted in the deaths of 22 people, activists and bloggers expressed concerns over the potential for rights setbacks, including internet rights. After the attack, calls by politicians and commentators to filter pages inciting to violence and extremism multiplied. Some even suggested following in the footsteps of France, which blocked five websites without a judicial order on March 16.
Writing for Nawaat, net freedom and privacy advocate Dhouha Ben Youssef said that the “French model should not be adopted in Tunisia”. She cautioned that “It would represent an unprecedented drift away from gains in fundamental freedoms constitutionalized in 2014: net freedom and neutrality, freedom of the press, the rights to privacy and the freedom to access information on the internet”.
Noomane Fehri, minister of communication technologies and digital economy, said that filtering ‘won’t solve the problem’, adding that ‘it’s better to keep these sites open to follow them [its administrators], know where they are located, and what they are saying’. His ministry is coordinating with social media companies to suspend pages inciting to violence and extremism.
In other news, three members of the hacking group Fallaga were released on 25 March after spending nearly two months in prison. The group targeted French websites as part of the ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’ cyberattack. They also hacked several Tunisian government websites calling for the release of blogger Yassine Ayari, imprisoned in January for a one-year term for criticizing the military on Facebook.
Labor rights activist Rachid Aouine is on hunger strike after being sentenced on 9 March to six months in prison for “inciting an unarmed gathering” in a Facebook update. The ironic post responded to a government announcement warning law-enforcement officers not to take part in protests. Aouine wrote: “Police officers, why don't you go out today to protest against the arbitrary decisions against your colleagues…, instead of controlling the free activists and the protesters against the shale gas?”
Nabeel Rajab, free speech activist and president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was taken into custody on April 2 on charges that he “posted information that could incite others and disrupt civil peace,” and that he “illegally defamed a statutory body.” Rajab had reported on torture and humiliation of inmates in Bahrain’s Jaw prison and criticized Bahrain’s participation in airstrikes in Yemen. The detention coincides with Rajab’s appeal of a six-month sentence handed down in January for insulting government ministries on Twitter. The appeal, which had been scheduled for April 15, was moved to April 5 and then adjourned until May 4, “as prosecutors consider new charges against him over online comments”.
In his speech at the 26th Arab League summit on 28 March, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi warned of the “danger of a new and untraditional mode of terrorism” that uses information technology to its advantage and called for “pooling all efforts together to outline general principles for the safe use of telecommunication and information technology and activating international agreements regulating this issue”.
Bara’a Anwar, a 20-year-old university student, was arrested for instigating strife through a post published on Facebook. It was not clear what is it that he published exactly. He is set to appear before state security court.
Criticizing Saudi Arabia on social media has landed several Kuwaitis in hot water in recent months. Following the death of King Abdullah on January 23, several individuals were detained for insulting the late Saudi monarch. Blogger Salah al Saeed’s sentence for jeopardizing Saudi-Kuwaiti relations in 16 tweets was increased from four to six years in February. Opposition activist Tariq al-Mutairi, head of the Civil Democratic Movement, was arrested on March 18 and charged with “publishing a number of tweets insulting the sister Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”, according to a statement by the interior ministry. He was released on bail on 19 March. A recent Al Monitor report explains how the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Internal Security Pact, only recently ratified by Kuwait, is being used to crackdown on dissent and prevent dissidents from one GCC country from finding safe havens in another.
A group of 24 human rights and civil society groups have called on Mauritanian authorities to release blogger Mohamed Cheikh ould Mohamed Mkhaïtir, the first person in Mauritania to be sentenced to death for apostasy. Mohamed Mkhaitir, held in pre-trial detention for almost one year, was accused of apostasy for “speaking lightly” of the Prophet Muhammed in “Religion, Religiosity and Craftsmen”, an online article since taken down that denounced his country’s discriminatory caste system. Article 306 of the Mauritanian penal code provides for leniency with repentance. While Mohamed Mkhaitir has repented repeatedly in court, his verdict still stands.
Journalist Hicham Mansouri has been sentenced to 10 months in prison on an adultery charge, after his home was raided and he was beaten. Hicham had been working on an investigative piece about electronic state surveillance.
Online activist Talib Al-Saedi is believed to be held incommunicado for calling for reform in Oman on social media. He disappeared on 23 March after appearing for investigation before the Special Division of the Omani Police in Muscat.
The criminal court in Al Qatif in Eastern Saudi Arabia ordered a 32-year-old woman to pay a fine of $5,300 and sentenced her to 70 lashes for insulting and defaming a man—some reports say her husband—over the messaging application WhatsApp. The case was prosecuted under article three of the kingdom’s Anti-Cybercrime Law, which states “Defamation and infliction of damage upon others through the use of various information technology devices” is subject to imprisonment of up to a year and/or a fine of up to 500,000 riyals.
The trial of Mazen Darwish, Hani Al-Zitani and Hussein Gharir from the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM) has once again been postponed. A verdict was set to be issued on 25 March but the three defendants were not brought to court preventing the trial from taking place. The three activists, who have been in prison since 2012, are accused of “publishing information about terrorist actions” for activities including monitoring of online news and publication of human rights reports and records of those killed or missing in the ongoing Syrian conflict. Darwish, Al-Zitania and Gharir were amnestied in 2014 but to date they have not been released.
United Arab Emirates
Three sisters have been held incommunicado for tweeting about the unfair trial and of their imprisoned activist brother. Asma Khalifa al-Suwaidi, Mariam Khalifa al-Suwaidi and Alyaziyah Khalifa al-Suwaidi disappeared after they were summoned for questioning at a police station in Abu Dhabi on 15 February. According to Amnesty, they had been campaigning online for their brother Dr. Issa al-Suwaidi, who is one of 69 government critics convicted for their activism in 2013.
A group of five men, reportedly from another Gulf country, have been accused of “insulting symbols of the country” using social media accounts. One of the men, a 33-year-old identified by the initials HH, appeared before the State Security Court on 2 March. The other four did not appear.
New research and reports
- The Chairperson’s Report of the third Arab Internet Governance Forum, which took place last November, has been published (Arabic only)
- Privacy International has published Their Eyes on Me, a collection of stories of surveillance from Morocco
In other news
- Reporters without Borders mirrors censored sites, including Gulf Centre for Human Rights and Bahrain Mirror, as part of its Collateral Freedom campaign
- Can governments in the Gulf truly foster creativity while suppressing dissent? IFEX takes a look at the inaugural Arab Social Media Awards in Dubai
- An infographic from George Washington University’s master’s in paralegal studies online program visualizes the various forms that internet censorship can take
- Qatar hosted a regional symposium on “Freedom of Opinion and Expression in the Arab World; Reality and Aspiration”. See the agenda
- More than 40 civil society organizations signed a joint statement calling on technology companies to expand their transparency reporting
- A book titled “1,000 Lashes: Why I Say What I Think” that includes an introduction dictated by imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi to his wife was published earlier this month in German
- In Muftah, Mend Mariwany describes the first Arab Social Media Influencers Summit in Dubai as the ‘the latest in a slew of similar conferences aimed at covering up the region’s track record of censorship and problematic cyberlaws”
From our partners
- 7iber.com: What does Net Neutrality Victory Mean? (Arabic) and an interview with Lina Ejeilat on the site’s decision to accede to a licensing requirement
- SMEX has counted 50 websites blocked in Lebanon, including gambling and pornography sites, selected Israeli sites, sites that allegedly breach copyright law, and an LGBT forum
- Istanbul: Applications are open until May 15 for the Internet Policy in the MENA Region: Research Methods for Advocates, which will take place in Istanbul on September 1-4
- Beirut: A press conference will be held on April 28 to discuss online censorship and recent interrogations carried out by Lebanon’s controversial Bureau of Cyber Crime and Intellectual Property
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 Roberts Biddle, Jessica Dheere, Salma Echahly, Mohamed ElGohary, Abir Ghattas, Mohamad Najem, Thalia Rahme, Jillian C. York and translated into Arabic by Mohamed ElGohary and into French by Thalia Rahme.