Treating the Internet as the enemy in the Middle East

By Courtney C. Radsch on April 27, 2015 11:01 AM ET

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi shout slogans against the military and government during a protest in Cairo on November 28, 2014. (Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

The snow and freezing temperatures that struck Saudi Arabia unexpectedly in December 2013 were newsworthy in a desert kingdom better known for its extreme heat. But the fact that the ensuing power outages at a regional prison left prisoners without power or heat for nearly a week was apparently off-limits to reporters.

Mansour al-Mazhrm, a correspondent for the Saudi daily Al-Watan Online, reported on the outages on Twitter, only to find himself hauled into court for defamation on "information technology devices." Al-Mazhrm served seven days in prison and was forced to pay a fine for violating Article 3 of the country's Anti-Cyber Crime Law.

In much of the Middle East and North Africa, the local press has limited independence and operates within strict red lines, and activists and journalists have turned to social media to provide reporting or commentary on issues of public concern. Blogs and posts on Facebook and Twitter have filled a void created by the predominance of state-run media and the lack of independent journalism in the region before 2011.

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Authorities who feel threatened by domestic reform efforts or criticism after the overthrow of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen in 2011 have fiercely cracked down on online journalism and freedom of expression more broadly. The Internet is no longer as welcoming to independent journalism as non-democratic governments erase the legal distinctions between speech online and off. The digital space for independent journalism and free speech is likely to be constricted further by the impact of restrictive laws, surveillance, and ensuing self-censorship.

In this environment, laws against disrupting public order and spreading false news have been passed or updated to apply to online expression--all in the name of preserving stability, preventing terrorism, and avoiding anarchy. Journalists who violate these regulations face criminal penalties, sometimes including lengthy prison sentences and fines.

In countries that adopted new constitutions in the wake of popular uprisings or in an effort to stave them off, there are often provisions that specifically address digital journalism and online communications. In Egypt, the 2014 constitution established regulation of journalism online, whereas previously Internet journalism was largely unhindered.

"Generally speaking, in the Middle East there's been an increased effort in limiting journalists' and people's ability to work freely," Ramsey George, editor of the online Jordanian news site 7iber, told CPJ.

In the United Arab Emirates, foreign journalists were barred from covering the 2013 trial of 94 suspected Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers. Coverage by local journalists was biased and incomplete, according to human rights groups and Matt Duffy, a visiting assistant professor at Berry College who covered the backlash prompted by the trial for Al-Monitor. As a result, trial-watchers turned to Twitter to report on the case, which included accusations of torture and procedural irregularities.

"Why is there no investigation in regards to the torture of Salem Sahouwa, IbrahimYasi and Mohammed Abdul Razzak, although it was mentioned in court? # Violations _ despite_ trial # trial_free_Emirates," tweeted one such commentator, Abdullah al-Hadidi. His observations and critical questions about the trial and treatment of defendants provoked his arrest on charges of spreading false news, a criminal offense under the penal code. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison after being reprimanded by the judge of a newspaper "for crossing the limits of free expression by trying to incite public opinion," according to Gulf News.

Duffy told CPJ that "the evidence of their 'plot' appeared to be no more than discussions, criticism, and dissent."

Cybercrime legislation, publicly justified as a means of preventing terrorism and protecting children, is a growing concern for journalists because the laws are also used to restrict legitimate speech, especially when it is critical or embarrassing to authorities. According to CPJ's 2014 annual prison census, 30 of the 41 journalists who were imprisoned in the Arab Middle East worked online. Nearly half of the Internet journalists were imprisoned under anti-state laws, such as violations of vague cybercrime or anti-terrorism provisions.

In 2012, for example, the UAE updated its cybercrime law to make it illegal to defame the government or injure its representation, using the vague language common to so many such laws in the region. Duffy called the update "repressive in its vagueness."

"These laws are targeting social media activists who are playing the role of journalists," Duffy said. "Nobody is practicing critical journalism in these countries, so social media activists are the only ones really pushing the boundaries, and they're being cracked down on."

Vaguely worded laws and the elision of criticism with terrorism or national security threats have created an increasingly perilous situation for online journalists. At the same time, licensing regimes that restrict free speech in print and broadcast media are being extended to online journalism. Requiring news websites and/or blogs to register with the government and blocking sites for noncompliance, as in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, appears to be aimed at monitoring and controlling communication online in the hopes of preventing independent journalism from fueling domestic discontent.

"The Arab Spring has had two consequences," said Hisham al-Miraat, a Moroccan physician and blogger who works with the Association for Digital Rights. "It showed that you can change things in your country, but it was also a wake-up call to those governments--it was a paradigm shift in the online world. Before, those governments thought the Internet could not undermine the structures they had spent centuries building. But the Internet is ubiquitous; you can't just shut it down."

Jessica Dheere, co-founder of the Lebanon-based Social Media Exchange (SMEX), said that the region's governments had a singular goal in mind with respect to the Internet: maintaining power under the assumption that if they can control information, they can control the outcome. "Everything the Arab governments are doing now is about trying to control the Internet. All the legislation that's been passed, especially since the Arab Spring, and even before, is about trying to control the Internet, and the way that they are treating activists and detaining them and harassing them is all about control."

Saudi Arabia extended repressive press laws to online media amid the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in January 2011, and in 2014 the government criminalized reporting on protests by way of social media under a new anti-terrorism law. Kuwait, meanwhile, has proposed a law that would empower authorities to block websites and restrict access to the Internet without providing a reason under the guise of protecting public morals, health, or national security. Kuwait has the highest per capita Twitter use in the world, according to a study by Northeastern University, and critics saw this as an effort to restrain discussion of sensitive topics and election coverage with the threat of harsh penalties, including jail time.

In Qatar, an ambiguous cybercrime law passed in September 2014 imposes heavy fines and prison sentences on anyone found guilty of violating social values by publishing "news, pictures, audio or video recordings related to the personal or family life of individuals, even if true." Like many such laws in the region, it includes prohibitions on spreading false news but also includes penalties for creating or managing a website to do so. By criminalizing the creation and dissemination of a range of vaguely defined content, it opens up journalists and others to prosecution for engaging in standard reporting and commentary.

The Gulf Center for Human Rights called the law "vague at best."

Sixteen countries in the region have laws criminalizing blasphemy or apostasy, according to the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religious & Public Life, and their application to online media dampens the public's ability to even discuss religion or religious matters. In some cases, such as in Saudi Arabia and Libya, those convicted could face the death penalty. And because truth is not a defense against libel or defamation in most countries, according to my analysis for the UNESCO publication World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development, journalists lack basic mechanisms with which to protect themselves.

In Egypt, the protest law that was implemented in November 2013 "has had a direct effect on content, keeping activist journalists away from street politics, and keeping street politics out of the papers," according to an analysis by the free expression group Article 19 of online news media in the country. According to CPJ research, several journalists, bloggers, and activists have been jailed under this law, which carries penalties of up to seven years in prison.

As of late 2014, a draft cybercrime bill was being considered in Tunisia that contains criminal penalties for defamation. Although the penal code already criminalizes defamation, "the difference is that it makes these provisions specific to the Internet," said Afef Abrougui, a consultant on information and communications technology and human rights in Tunisia.

Unfortunately for journalists, there appears to be broad public support for tightening control of the Internet.

According to a survey by Northwestern University, public opinion in the region tilts toward regulating the Internet more tightly, with 50 percent of respondents in an eight-country survey favoring broader regulations and only 16 percent opposed. In most countries, less than 50 percent of respondents felt that people should be free to criticize governments online. Another study found that most users surveyed in the region supported government censorship to "protect" them from content deemed inappropriate or out of line with cultural values.

"The anti-terrorism law [in Jordan] has had an impact on what people say and what journalists write," George told CPJ. "It's stifled the debate about what's happening; the main narrative that comes out is what the government wants to come out."

In Egypt, a draft anti-terrorism law approved by the cabinet would give authorities wide latitude to interfere in online communication and broaden its surveillance powers. If the law passes, the state could impose criminal penalties on those who "promote [material] that is intended to mislead the security or judicial authorities in matters [related to] the crimes of terrorism" and shut down websites ostensibly used for such purposes. As of late 2014 the bill awaited President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's final signature to take effect.

George's 7iber was blocked in Jordan for much of 2014 after he refused to comply with a new law requiring news websites to register with the government and imposing onerous staffing and educational requirements to do so. Although the local news site posts some of its content on Facebook and elsewhere, the law has "had the impact they wanted; it reduced certain visibility," George said, adding that he is considering acquiescing to the registration requirement to remain viable.

"Any type of reform, and discussion about it, has been stifled," George said. "People who were widely known to be pushing a reform agenda have reverted to focusing on very local issues, like [collection of] trash, but no one is calling for transparency and accountability on military budgets, for example."

According to my analysis for the UNESCO report on media development trends, journalists in the region are typically required to obtain licenses to practice, and because there has been, until recently, a clear distinction between online and traditional media, Internet-based journalists have been exempted from these licensing and registration requirements. The failure to recognize online journalists has been a double-edged sword. Most countries in the region require registration with state-endorsed journalist syndicates, which typically do not recognize Web-based journalists or media outlets and therefore exclude such journalists from the benefits and certification that these institutions provide. On the other hand, efforts under way to extend registration requirements to online-only publications and, by extension, their journalists, risks putting control over who is or is not a journalist even more firmly in the hands of the government.

For those who work for Web-based media or practice journalism online only, the inability to register as a journalist and obtain media credentials can prevent them from being able to cover public demonstrations and official events, opening them up to prosecution under draconian protest laws or public disorder ordinances, as in Egypt.

Amid this tightening legal atmosphere, cyberattacks against media websites, journalists, and social media accounts have become a popular tactic for quelling even the most basic journalistic efforts. Pro-government trolls have launched slanderous campaigns against critical journalists in several countries. Defacement of websites, particularly opposition and Western news sites, and hijacking of their social media accounts have been used by state and non-state actors alike. Syria may have formalized a military capacity to launch cyberattacks, if the attacks claimed by the pro-government Syrian Electronic Army on The New York Times, Huffington Post, and The Washington Post are to be believed.

"Many of those who are still crazy, brave enough to speak their mind online, fall victim to similar types of attacks," Hisham al-Miraat said. "They get their email or Facebook accounts attacked, or, if you're very popular, you get sophisticated spyware sent to your accounts, like da Vinci, a Trojan horse. This type of stuff is becoming more common but [it's] hard to prove it's a concerted effort or coordinated."

The region's governments seem eager to extend their authority into the broader realm of Internet governance at the global level as well. In October 2014, the 22 member states of the Arab League claimed that "policy authority for international internet-related public policy issues is the sovereign right of states." This is contrary to the current "multi-stakeholder" model, which gives civil society, academia, and the technical community roles equal to those of states in Internet governance.

This tendency was on display at the third Arab Internet Governance Forum, held in Beirut in late November 2014, which few high-level government officials outside of Lebanon attended, according to several civil society participants. "I think the Arab IGF is a place for discussion and debate, but it doesn't have a decision mechanism [so states] focus on the ITU [International Telecommunications Union] because there is some power there and they can actually control the Internet more," Mohamed Najem, a member of CPJ's Internet Advisory Group and the other co-founder of the Social Media Exchange, told CPJ.

Najem said that the 2013 Arab IGF, in Algeria, was attended by high-level officials from several countries but that governments in the region are not now interested in an open discussion or debate with civil society. "There was some good discussion [in Lebanon] about freedom of expression online, privacy, terrorism, but the elephant in the room was that the governments don't care and don't listen," he said. "Their strategy is more control over the Internet, over online speech, and trying to do as much as possible, legally or illegally, either at the ITU or by drafting new laws that restrict human rights, or by breaking their own laws to prosecute their own citizens."

Dheere said there is a lack of strategic vision in the region about the Internet's role in economic, social, and political development, resulting in the governments' focus on preserving the status quo. She said that governmental control over the Internet is not just happening unilaterally but is instead a coordinated effort by the Arab states.

"In the near future, we all need to work together on the issue of governance model for the Internet," Moez Chakchouk, chair and CEO of the Tunisian Internet Agency, the country's wholesale provider of Internet services, told CPJ. "We must learn to be open and transparent. The relationship between policy makers and citizens is still fragile, and only rebuilding the trust will strengthen it."

Given the prevalence of violent attacks by armed groups in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya and the ongoing fight against militants who call themselves the Islamic State, such trust will likely be harder than ever to build.

In Tunisia, Afef Abrougui said, the government has taken steps to break away from censorship only to have officials backpedal amid the outbreak of violence there. "Especially with last year's [2013] attacks by armed groups on police and military, there has been a surge in this debate," the journalist-turned-Internet consultant told CPJ, "particularly the interior minister, who is saying they need to monitor and censor the Internet, like the Internet is the only or main reason these attacks are taking place."

The same excuses have been used by governments throughout the region and have fueled more concerted attempts to expand surveillance across digital platforms, particularly amid revelations of mass surveillance by the United States and other Western spy agencies. "Instead of censoring, all you need to do is spy on everyone or instill the idea that everyone is potentially being spied on, which has a terribly chilling effect on freedom of expression," said Miraat.

In June 2014, the Al-Watan newspaper published a leaked government tender for real-time social media surveillance technology that detailed a long list of content and "destructive ideas" that the Egyptian government sought to monitor.

The leak followed a report by the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab earlier in the year that Egypt was using spyware to target journalists and human rights activists and intercept their communications. Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were also among the governments identified by the researchers as using the exceptionally perfidious surveillance and hacking software.

Tunisia, which had one of the most sophisticated censorial apparatuses in the region under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, no longer maintains the same level of monitoring and control that it once did, according to Chakchouk.

But in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, with reports of targeted spying on journalists and the hacking of media, including the internal communications of Al-Jazeera, governments are making noise about needing their own surveillance programs and data localization to ensure that they have access to communications flowing through their borders. Journalists will need to navigate not only an increasingly perilous legal landscape in their work online but creeping self-censorship spurred by surveillance and harsh criminal penalties as well.

Courtney C. Radsch, Ph.D., is CPJ's advocacy director. She previously worked for UNESCO's Section for Freedom of Expression and was senior program manager for the Global Freedom of Expression Campaign at Freedom House, where she led advocacy missions to more than a dozen countries. She has also worked for Al-Arabiya in Dubai, the Daily Star in Lebanon and The New York Times.

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