Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression (Conditions apply)


[First published on openDemocracy.]

12 March marked the World Day against online censorship. Reporters Without Borders remained faithful to their habits and announced this year’s ‘Enemies of the Internet’. Repressive governments in the Middle East also remained faithful to their habits; they continued to crack down on free speech, both online and offline.

The Algerian government, for instance, marked this day in a special way: by taking Jordanian Noorsat satellite TV channel Al-Atlas completely off-air. Addressing each and every event of suppressed free speech is impossible. I believe, however, that the few examples below will suffice to highlight the unconditional disrespect for freedom of expression citizens encounter every day across the MENA region.

Egypt jails journalists by the dozen

One might remember the joint statement calling for “openness, inclusiveness, accountability, effectiveness, coherence and respect for applicable laws” issued late May 2013. At that time, then-Communications and Information Technology Minister met Europe’s Digital Agenda Commissioner to discuss internet governance. After Mohamed Morsi’s ouster, the army gloriously debuted a new era of governing Egypt by shutting down several Islamist outlets.

Different human rights organisations have issued a statement in response. It demands that the authorities “must respect principles of media freedom as stipulated by international law”. Ever since the army has continued to be innovative; it has also updated national legislation on terrorism to criminalise certain online activity as a “terrorist offence”. The draft law was leaked for the first time in November 2013; it presented a very limited mention of the internet. Yet, it was crystal clear that this law, if passed, would be just a trojan horse inscribing more and more arbitrary repression into Egypt’s legislation.

More repressive lawmaking

On 30 January 2014, Egyptian daily newspaper Shourouk reported on the draft law, explaining that “for the first time [anti-terrorism legislation] includes new laws which guarantee control over ‘terrorism’ crimes in a comprehensive manner, starting with the monitoring of Facebook and the Internet, in order for them not to be used for terrorism purposes”. As for what terrorism is, the term includes “use of threat, violence, or intimidation to breach public order, to violate security, to endanger people”. Also, it can describe “acts of violence, threat, intimidation that obstruct public authorities or government, as well as the implementation of the constitution”. This second leak confirmed that the law was just intended to broaden legally justified repression.

But the military-backed government did not wait for more repressive laws to be passed to clamp down on dissent. The case, widely covered by the media, of journalists facing terrorism charges, is particularly telling. It is the first time journalists in Egypt face trial for ‘terrorism’. The rationale, I should explain, is that some of the journalists work for the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network; it has been deemed sympathetic to deposed president Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood (declared a ‘terrorist organisation’ in Egypt back in December 2013).

The crackdown intensifies and takes increasingly tragic turns; photojournalist Abdullah Elshamy completes two months of hunger strike in protest over seven-month-long detention without charge. Another journalist was sentenced to one year in jail for “disturbing the peace”.

The Gulf quashes free speech 

Egypt is yet to reach the brute-force crackdown level of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Egyptian army’s new best friend.

The Emirates have enforced specific legislation, referred to as the ‘Cybercrime Decree’; it outlaws the use of technology to criticise the government. Passed in 2012, the Decree has been instrumental in silencing various forms of dissent. The UAE has become specialised in jailing people for a tweet. Commenting on torture allegations on Twitter: three years jail sentence and a heavy fine. “Insulting state security” on Twitter: a five-year jail sentence and a heavy fine. As Rory Donaghy, Director of the Emirates Centre for Human Rights frames it:

The logic of the authorities is truly Orwellian – the only offence of the ‘criminals’ was thought crime.

Saudi Arabia has also decided to honour politically incorrect tweeps. Last week, a court sentenced two men to ten and eight years imprisonment, respectively. The former was charged with sending “invitations via Twitter to participate in protests and gatherings against the Kingdom”. The second man was jailed and slapped with a lengthly travel ban (to be applied after the jail sentence); the punishment is for “inciting relatives of Saudis, arrested for security reasons, to protest their imprisonment by tweeting and by posting videos on sites like YouTube”.

Both of these have been detained before; the offences were similar: “outrageous” use of social networks and the promotion of “deviant ideologies”. These two dangerous dissenters should, however, be grateful to avoid the 600 lashes given to another blogger (in addition to seven years imprisonment) back in July 2013; he is guilty of starting a blog seeking to spark religious dialogue within the Kingdom.

Saudi continues to emprison for tweets

Such generous sentences are thanks to a Saudi Arabian Cybercrime law; it criminalises any mode of questioning religion in the Kingdom. In December 2013, the already repressive and vague definition was widened and transformed into an even more catch-all document. The new Cyberterrorism law now defines as criminal offences, actions which disturb public order or defame the reputation of the Kingdom. Women who demand the right to drive today may be charged and jailed under this refurbished legislation. The new Cyberterrorism law supposedly complies with international human rights standards; after all, since November 2013, Saudi Arabia was elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The situation is no better elsewhere in the Gulf, as outlined by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights most recent annual report:

“Indeed, in almost every country reported on, authoritarian regimes are severely restricting the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association in an effort to silence dissent. For example, governments are restricting freedom of expression on the Internet through new laws that criminalise criticism online. Governments are meeting peaceful protesters with violence. Would-be reformers have been imprisoned. Defenders who seek to cooperate with international human rights bodies have faced reprisals both at home and abroad. Human rights defenders have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention, ill-treatment at times amounting to torture, unfair trials and disproportionate prison sentences.”

Open to surveillance

The dream of repressive governments everywhere is to know everything we say, do, think and fear. There are increasing numbers of applications. Some of the most prominent companies producing surveillance gear in the world are BlueCoatBull/AmesysHacking Team and Vupen.

All of those are based in western countries; the latter organise ‘surveillance dealerships’ where repressive regimes from around the globe meet surveillance gear suppliers. Contracts flourish: watching over citizens’ activities is a great way to bring the population to heel. Thus, it preserves “national security” and “the country’s unity” in one fell swoop. Those are two favourite tunes in the MENA region. Surveillance gear may consequently be considered as defence-related material in which case information about procurement is nearly impossible to find.

Security experts from Citizen Lab have put a great effort into researching which governments could be using what types of surveillance technology. In a report released in January 2013, Citizen Lab uncovered 61 appliances capable of filtering, censorship and surveillance. Developed by BlueCoat, the software instances were deployed “on public or government networks in countries with a history of concerns over human rights, surveillance, and censorship”. Nearly all MENA countries were found to have at least one such device operating.

Hacking Team booming in the MENA

Citizen Lab released another report in February 2014 focusing on Italian company Hacking Team. The latter describes its lawful interception products as “offensive technology”. Hacking Team came under scrutiny in 2012 after its faithful services to Morocco and the UAE were uncovered. More specifically, Hacking Team proudly sells a remote control system (RCS) named DaVinci. The latter is able, according to its creators, to break the encryption on emails, files and VoIP protocols.

Citizen Lab highlights that Hacking Team sells its “offensive technology” exclusively to governments listing the twenty-one identified as current or former users of RCS. Among them, we find Egypt, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and the UAE. The report thoroughly explains how the sophisticated spyware has been introduced to citizens computers; it showcases how “inventive” surveillance aficionados can grow:

We identified an RCS sample uploaded to VirusTotal from Oman that contained a bait document about Omani poetry, purportedly authored by Dr Mohammed Mahrooqi at the University of Nizwa in Oman.

No need for a crystal ball: repressive states in the MENA region will continue to suppress dissent. One seems, however, to need a magic wand for the situation to improve.

An important part of my work focuses on the MENA region. Find on this page several write-ups on that topic.